Monday, March 30, 2009

President Obama took ownership of the war in Afghanistan on Friday, announcing a “stronger and smarter” strategy to defeat the terrorists and promote regional stability. Mr. Obama’s approach certainly is stronger, with a planned deployment of 4,000 troops in addition to a previously announced 17,000-troop surge. But it is hard to call the plan smarter.

There is little new in the plan at the strategic level, the president’s rhetoric notwithstanding. Compare his approach to the “Five Pillars” of the 2004 Afghan counterinsurgency strategy — defeat terrorism; enable the Afghan security structure; sustain area ownership; enable reconstruction and good governance; and engage regional states. Mr. Obama may employ slightly different language, but the strategic concepts are the same.

The new plan incorporates some good ideas that have been circulating in defense circles, including many that have appeared on these editorial pages. The most important of these are downgrading expectations of what can be accomplished (we will not see New England town meeting-style democracy in Afghanistan), and seeking to drive wedges between the Taliban and al Qaeda. But President Bush gets credit for the most significant strategic shift when he authorized expanded Predator strikes against terror targets inside Pakistan in August 2008. Since then, nine of the top 20 al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan have been killed, almost half the command group.

These raids inside Pakistan are effective but highly unpopular in that country, and will impede progress with other aspects of the president’s agenda. The plan optimistically calls for a “standing, trilateral dialogue among the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” an excellent talking point but impractical and even counterproductive in practice.

AFPAK is a convenient acronym but it is as close as the two sides are going to come, the charm of our diplomatic corps notwithstanding. Pakistan and Afghanistan have enduring differences that go well beyond U.S. strategic concerns over terrorism. Remember that Pakistan underwrote the Taliban in the first place, and Islamabad would rather not have a stable, democratic, India-aligned Afghanistan on its western flank. All the regional actors, including Iran, know that the U.S. wants to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible, and that fact will color any attempts at regional solutions. Once we depart they will hit the reset button and head back to the 1990s.

Mr. Obama’s counternarcotics strategy is definitely not smarter. His plan to hand out wheat seed to poppy farmers, which is based on the current price of wheat on the world market, is culturally ignorant. The Helmand Valley, which is the focus of the opium cultivation that helps support the militants, is traditionally a cotton producing area. A former Afghan National Security Council member tell us that farmers in Helmand “still want to go back to [growing cotton] if they know their products can find a market. The easiest and most practical way would be to let the people choose what they want to grow and then buy their product.

Furthermore, the “carrot-stick-carrot” approach to the recalcitrant farmers, which involves torching their poppy fields, would be disastrous. From a hearts-and-minds perspective it is a gift to the Taliban. “People will leave for Pakistan and settle in refugee camps and will come back to wage jihad on us,” our source said. One can imagine the news coverage of this plan in action, especially on Middle East television: U.S. troops methodically and impassively lighting fires; pitiable farmers pleading for them to stop; the drifting smoke from the burning fields; perhaps some out-of-control blaze blowing into a village; weeping women and children - grist for the Oliver Stone version.

The true measure of the plan will be its implementation. We heard a lot during the Bush years about coordinating elements of national power, but the task proved difficult because of institutional conflicts and ego clashes. The Obama administration appears to want to avoid some of this by working less though cabinet secretaries and more though special envoys and the National Security Council. Whether this will promote greater interagency coordination or simply put more big egos at the table remains to be seen.

In his speech Friday Mr. Obama said “we will not blindly stay the course,” one of several cheap shots at the Bush administration. But staying the course at the strategic level means not giving up, as Sen. Obama had wanted to do in Iraq. The Afghan war is now his to lose. Governments in the region, as well as our NATO allies, will be watching closely for signs that the president lacks the fortitude to press the matter to a successful conclusion.

In this respect Mr. Obama may fancy himself a smarter president than Mr. Bush, but it remains to be seen if he is stronger.

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