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A New Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
March 27, 2009


The new Afghanistan policy that President Obama unveiled at the White House today was pretty much all that supporters of the war effort could have asked for, and probably pretty similar to what a President McCain would have decided on.

The major difference between what McCain probably would have said and what Obama did say is that this president never used the word "surge" and -- more importantly -- never cited the success of the surge in Iraq as evidence that we can succeed in Afghanistan where the situation is far less perilous. He only mentioned Iraq as an unnecessary drain on resources, saying that "for six years, Afghanistan has been denied the resources that it demands because of the war in Iraq."

That's only partially true. The reality is that the U.S. has the theoretical capacity to fight in both Iraq and Afghanistan but President Bush made a huge mistake by not enlarging our armed forces after 9/11, thereby forcing us to shortchange the war in Afghanistan to win the one in Iraq. It would have been better if we did not have to make such compromises, but given the unnecessary resource constraints which Bush and Rumsfeld imposed on the armed forces -- and which Obama is not lifting -- there was really no other choice.

It would be nice if Obama had spoken a bit more positively about the outcome in Iraq now that that it has become, like Afghanistan, "his" war. But that's a minor quibble about rhetoric. The substance of policy is more important, and on that ground Obama is solid.

The big news -- though it had been apparent for some time -- is that Obama is eschewing those who argue for a major downsizing of our efforts to focus on a narrow counter-terrorism strategy of simply picking off individual bad guys. Instead, Obama is embracing a more wide-ranging counterinsurgency strategy focused on enhancing "the military, governance, and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan."

To provide the resources to carry out such a strategy he announced that another brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division (4,000 troops) will go to Afghanistan on a training mission on top of the 17,000 reinforcements he has already authorized. He also vowed "a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground." That U.S. commitment is necessary because our NATO partners will not significantly increase their troop contributions, a fact that Obama obliquely acknowledged when he said, "From our partners and NATO allies, we seek not simply troops, but rather clearly defined capabilities: supporting the Afghan elections, training Afghan Security Forces, and a greater civilian commitment to the Afghan people." What he didn't mention is that the convoluted NATO command structure in Afghanistan remains a major barrier to success that needs to be straightened out.

The president didn't commit to a larger sized Afghan National Security Forces which badly need to expand, but he did say "we will accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan Army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 so that we can meet these goals by 2011 -- and increases in Afghan forces may very well be needed as our plans to turn over security responsibility to the Afghans go forward." That's heading in the right direction but it would have been better had he said flat out, "We will aim to expand the ANSF to 400,000 men," as some in the administration had urged.

Despite the lack of specific goals for ANSF expansion, this was an ambitious counterinsurgency policy, even if that was somewhat hidden by the rhetoric that Obama chose to use, which focused exclusively on the threat emanating from Al Qaeda. He said that "we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future."

In reality, as Obama knows full well, Al Qaeda is only one of many extremist groups active along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier and we have to be equally concerned about disrupting other members of the "insurgent syndicate" such as Lashkar-e Taiba and the Pakistani Taliban. Apparently the president and his advisers figured it would be an easier sell to the American public to focus on the best known group: Al Qaeda. That may be a rational, short-term, public-relations gambit, but it is likely to cause confusion down the road as Americans notice that most of the insurgents our troops are fighting aren't affiliated with Al Qaeda. Also, as Sarah Chayes points out in the Los Angeles Times today, such narrowly focused goals dispirit the people of Afghanistan who are looking for a broad American commitment to the future of their country. A little more honesty today could help to avert difficulties down the road with public opinion both in Afghanistan and in the United States.

I am not sold on every aspect of the Obama policy. For instance, he endorsed legislation to send even more money to Pakistan promising that there would be "benchmarks" to make sure the aid isn't wasted like previous U.S. donations to Islamabad. He also promised "clear benchmarks for international assistance so that it is used to provide for the needs of the Afghan people." That recalls the benchmarks that Congressional Democrats forced the White House to adopt for Iraq in 2007. Those benchmarks ultimately turned out to have had at best a marginal significance, because they didn't measure the really important and unanticipated developments, such as the emergence of the Sons of Iraq and a bottom-up reconciliation process. There is scant reason to think that we can do a much better job in "benchmarking" Afghanistan, much less Pakistan, where we have much less knowledge about what goes on.

I also have grave doubt that the "new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan" will do much good. Obama promised to bring together "our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China." He claimed that "none of these nations benefit from a base for al Qaeda terrorists, and a region that descends into chaos. All have a stake in the promise of lasting peace and security and development."

Count me skeptical that Iran, for one, actually has a stake in "lasting peace and security" in Afghanistan if that means that Afghanistan will be a democratic ally of the United States, a.k.a. the Great Satan. But it is true that the Iranians were mildly helpful in Afghanistan in early 2002, and it wouldn't hurt their willingness to provide cooperation in the future while remaining skeptical of any promises they may make.

Obama concluded with a subtle dig at his predecessor, saying: "Going forward, we will not blindly stay the course. Instead, we will set clear metrics to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable." The implication of course is that the Bush administration went forward blindly without any metrics of progress. That may be unfair, but if it makes Obama feel good to take a swipe at George W. Bush while essentially continuing and expanding his policy -- well, that's a small price to pay for a centrist foreign policy.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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