Obama strategy deepens U.S. committment to Afghanistan, Pakistan

(Photo/SeaDour, Flickr)
(Photo/SeaDour, Flickr)

The Obama administration recast the seven-year-long war in Afghanistan on Friday with a deepened commitment to both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

Announcing the release of a strategy deliberated by the administration for the past 60 days, President Barack Obama said the objective for the United States and its allies was “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”

To that end, he pledged to send an additional 4,000 troops to Afghanistan to train Afghan security forces, on top of the 17,000 he has already ordered to deploy. A complement of civilian advisers from the State Department, USAID and other agencies that a White House aide said totalled in the “hundreds” will join them to help strengthen Afghan governance and economic development to cleave the Afghan population from an insurgency that has gained in strength for the past two years. The larger part of that strengthening will be an invigorated effort to expand the size and capabilities of the Afghan army and police force.

Significantly, Obama identified the source of the al-Qaida problem as emanating from Pakistan, where for years, U.S. intelligence assessments have judged that the jihadist organization has constituted a safe haven in tribal areas largely out of the control of the Pakistani government. Obama offered a wide-ranging package of economic and diplomatic support for the government of Asif Ali Zardari to help him confront militants (some of whom are linked to al-Qaida and many of whom strike U.S. and Afghan forces across the porous border with Afghanistan) who have made advances in taking territory away from Pakistani forces in recent months. Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the Pakistanis had given the administration a “red line” against the deployment of U.S. troops in Pakistan, although the new strategy devotes an unspecified number of troops to train Pakistan’s special operators and the Frontier Corps soldiers whom Zardari relies on to conduct counterinsurgency operations in the tribal areas.

“That is a cause that could not be more just,” Obama said.

As the review has proceeded, many in Washington and foreign capitals have wondered whether the administration would scale back the aims of the war, which under the Bush administration were rarely defined. A delegation of Afghan cabinet ministers that visited Washington last month sounded warnings against seeking “reductionist” goals in their country. Whether or not the goals have been scaled back, the administration forcefully rejected the idea that they were reducing the U.S. commitment to the two countries. “There is nothing minimalist about this approach,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who chaired the administration’s strategy review.

“What we’re doing is stepping up to more fully resource a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan,” said Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, who co-chaired the review. “It is very much a counterinsurgency approach towards” the longer-term goal of “disrupting and defeating al Qaeda and its associates.”

Denis McDonough, the National Security Council’s director of strategic communications, offered a definition of those terms. “Disrupting,” he said in a conference call after Obama’s speech, means preventing al-Qaida from “carr[ying] out” plans to attack the U.S. at home. “Defeating” means a longer-view approach to countering “the violent, hopeless future” that al-Qaida offers, through “different opportunities available to Pakistanis and Afghans and others.” But he added that the U.S. “need[s] to shut that safe haven down” that al-Qaida maintains in Pakistan.

“The president has made very clear for years now that there’s a hardcore [membership of al-Qaida] that there’s no reasoning with and no political process for,” McDonough said. “At the end of the day, they have to be met by force alone.”

Beyond that hard core, though, the administration intends to promote efforts led by the Afghan leadership to fracture the insurgency through outreach programs that hope to reconcile insurgent fighters with the government. The Afghan government has said it believes that “mid-level” insurgent commanders can be reconciled through negotiation and economic inducements would deprive most insurgent foot-soldiers of their motivation for fighting. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair estimated Thursday that up to two-thirds of the insurgents were potentially reconcilable.

A senior British diplomat acknowledged in an interview that efforts so far at reconciling insurgents in Afghanistan had failed but placed the blame for that failure on insufficient clarity and coordination between the Afghan government and the Bush administration, which did not devote resources to reconciliation, although the Afghan government has had talks with insurgent groups for years. “You have to get into a position where someone who wants to reconcile from the Taliban knows who to ring up, what door to knock on,” the diplomat said, arguing that the U.S., the U.K., the United Nations and NATO should work rapidly to support the Afghan government in setting up mechanisms for reconciliation. The Obama administration’s strategy calls for governors in every Afghan province to establish reconciliation efforts.

“It’s better to make sure the plumbing works now, so that when the momentum turns, people know what do to,” the British diplomat said. “Reconciliation has to be Afghan-led, and we cannot afford to be perceived as being able to force the Afghan [government] to do anything we want them to do.”

Holbrooke told Margaret Warner of PBS’ “News Hour” Friday that the prospects for reconciliation were promising. “The majority of people fighting for the Taliban are not fighting for the precepts of returning to a 14th-century caliphate or for Mullah Omar’s precepts,” he said. “We have to find ways to give these people alternatives — jobs in the agricultural sector. Make them understand that they’ve been misled by Mullah Omar and his core leadership.”

In Pakistan, the administration is constrained by the Pakistani government’s refusal to allow U.S. troops into the country. But the CIA, with the complicity of the Pakistani government, maintains a program to fly missile-equipped unmanned aerial vehicles from Pakistani territory for use against Pakistani insurgents. CIA Director Leon Panetta recently told reporters that the drone program would not end, despite concerns that an over-reliance on drone attacks risks alienating the Pakistani populace. Additionally, Defense Secretary Bob Gates told the Pentagon TV channel that he does not “anticipate that U.S. troops would be going into Pakistan” to go after Osama bin Laden, which is short of a categorical refusal, a point first noticed by Wired’s Noah Shachtman.

Some in the administration are skeptical that the Pakistanis will meet their commitments under the new strategy. “You have people there who just lie to our face, like Zardari, who just lies to us,” said one official who requested anonymity, referring to the Pakistani president. “Honestly, I don’t believe there’s a war going on in the tribal areas. The Pakistanis tell us that, but they’re just baldfaced lies.” The official believes that U.S. diplomats in Pakistan accept Pakistani claims of maximal war-fighting efforts at face value: “They don’t speak Urdu, they don’t speak Pashto, and they eat it all up.”

Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, said he has discussed the Pakistani intelligence services’ former and perhaps current support for the Taliban with its director and with the chief of staff of the Pakistani Army. “It’s a topic that is of enormous importance,” he told Warner, “because if there are links and if those continue and if it undermines the operations, obviously that would be very damaging to the kind of trust we need to build.”

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