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Searching for an Afghan Strategy

Author: Greg Bruno
January 22, 2009

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President Barack Obama is expected to send more troops, trainers, and resources to Afghanistan, a mission long overshadowed by the larger, more robust U.S. deployment in Iraq. Yet beyond relatively vague plans to draw down forces in one war and increase them by thirty thousand in another--bringing to roughly sixty thousand the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan--some analysts say Obama's overarching strategy remains something of a mystery. "They are picking up after a period in which the Bush administration was very ambitious in rhetoric and not at all ambitious in resource," CFR Senior Fellow Daniel Markey tells CFR.org. "And now, the question is, how do they intend to square that?"

Reports (RUSI), briefing papers (Carnegie), and analysts' assessments (USIP) have poured in from think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic, and no less than three government strategy reviews (LAT) have been undertaken in recent months--one by the Bush National Security Council, one by the Pentagon, and one by Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the region that includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. The reviews come amid a resurgent al-Qaeda and Taliban in the region, an uptick in violence, and concerns about corruption and the Afghan government's capabilities as a NATO partner (WashPost). Many analysts now believe Washington's original goal of creating a stable, free, and democratic Afghanistan is untenable, and President Obama's first priority will be to define "what the mission is," as one senior U.S. military commander told the Washington Post.

Obama himself has offered few hints as to how he might do that, but signals have emerged from those who will advise him in Washington. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a carryover from the Bush administration, has stressed that long-term military and economic commitments (Foreign Affairs) will be needed in Afghanistan. Prior to his nomination as Obama's national security adviser, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones recommended creation of a special envoy to Afghanistan governing all aspects of Afghan policy. Petraeus, meanwhile, has said the Afghan mission will require increased military attention, but any stability gained by extra troops must be converted into improving infrastructure and government capacity while tamping down drug-related violence.

Speaking in Washington on January 9, Petraeus hinted coalition forces might move into rural areas to coordinate more closely with local officials and tribes, and said stabilizing Afghanistan will require "a regional approach" that includes Pakistan, India, Central Asian states, and "perhaps at some point, Iran." Petraeus and other officials have also increasingly pointed to the importance of integrating U.S. policy on Pakistan, a haven for Taliban forces and scene of a separate antigovernment insurgency, into its strategy for Afghanistan.

Vice President Joe Biden, fresh from a visit to the region, warned the incoming president on January 16 that "things are going to get tougher" (AP) before they get better. According to the Brooking Institution's Afghanistan Index, deaths of Afghan civilians and U.S. soldiers spiked amid a resurgent Taliban in 2008 (PDF). Afghanistan, with a population of 33 million, remains one of the world's poorest countries; nearly one-third of the population is unemployed and roughly half live in poverty (PDF). Yet there is no consensus on how to reverse these trends, and some analysts believe Obama's call to bolster U.S. troops in the country could backfire. "As the British found during the 19th century, and as the Russians found at the end of the 20th century, military victory in Afghanistan can be elusive," Rajan Menon of the New America Foundation writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "The population is notoriously hostile to outside intervention, and even apparent success often produces a backlash that undoes progress." Indeed, on the same day as Obama's inauguration as forty-fourth president, Afghan President Hamid Karzai warned about the impact of civilian casualties inflicted by Western forces and stressed the importance of winning popular support among Afghans (BBC) for the war against militants. Karzai told his parliament: "We want change in military operations, we want effectiveness in the 'war on terror.' "

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