The Hidden War

Behind the Chaos, Obama's Plan Is Finally Coming Into Focus

December 21, 2010 |
During 2010, though it has received little credit for the effort, the Obama administration gradually clarified and firmed up its strategy in the Afghanistan war.
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To many Americans, the Afghan war understandably looked like a mess in 2010. The year began amid uncertainty at home and abroad about whether Barack Obama's administration was coming or going: Troops went in, but a date of July 2011 was set in advance for the soldiers to start heading home. The U.S. commanding general was fired in June for remarks he made to Rolling Stone; reports of picaresque Afghan corruption spread, encouraged in part by the U.S. government, which intensified its scrutiny of the conduct of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's kleptocratic allies; and American battlefield casualties rose. Pakistan teetered after historic floods in July, and its army continued to tolerate and even aid Islamist militias operating from its soil, despite Pakistan's receipt of billions of dollars in U.S. aid. To cap it off, Bob Woodward published a book chronicling scratchy disagreements among some of Obama's war advisors.

But the narrative unfolding beneath the headlines had more coherence than its surface suggested. During 2010, though it has received little credit for the effort, the Obama administration gradually clarified and firmed up its strategy in the Afghanistan war. There are three overlapping lines: direct pressure on al Qaeda, mainly by drone strikes; efforts to increase the capacity of the Afghan state, or at least its security state, by at last investing heavily in training its army and police; and efforts to influence Pakistan to stop tolerating and aiding Islamist militias on its soil. Timelines have also been reset and clarified. The NATO meeting in Lisbon pushed the most meaningful date of "transition" -- the time at which U.S.-led international combat forces will pass the lead role to Afghan forces -- to 2014, far enough away to be innately conditional. Next year, the administration intends to open negotiations with the Afghan government to define U.S. commitments to the country's security beyond 2014.

After the confusion over the original July 2011 drawdown date, Obama's team is self-consciously signaling to Afghans, Pakistanis, and the Taliban themselves that it is U.S. policy to ensure that the Taliban will never return to power. American public opinion has turned sharply against the war, but there appears nonetheless to be ample political space in the United States to attempt the strategy Obama has now endorsed, on the timelines he has described.

There are as many risks and uncertainties embedded in the administration's strategy as there are stars in the night sky. But whatever its chance of success, a coherent plan is a lot better than an incoherent one. Obama's plan accounts at least conceptually for many of the major factors in the war -- al Qaeda's resilience as a threat to the United States, nuclear-armed Pakistan's ambivalence about dangerous Islamist groups, and Afghanistan's weaknesses.

What remains is to identify an equally clarified political strategy to complement the military and NATO transitions the president defined in 2010. This past year was characterized by the floating of big ideas about Afghan peace talks -- ideas that were then undermined by division and false starts. Fake Taliban negotiators humiliated their interlocutors; Pakistan's intelligence service ambiguously asserted its self-assigned role of liaison to the Taliban; and tentative efforts by Karzai's government to explore talks and enlist Saudi Arabia as a mediator stalled. In Washington, there appears to be no consensus about what an Afghan political strategy would look like and what risks should be shouldered to pursue one. The sound idea of constructing intra-Afghan unity negotiations supported by regional diplomacy has been undermined by the year's failures and the persistent, unhelpful conflation of political strategy with an unrealistic fantasy that Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura could or would deliver a quick and easy path to peaceful national reconciliation.

The Soviet Union's transition out of combat in Afghanistan succeeded (until the Soviet Union itself fell apart) in part because the Geneva Accords yielded a framework for international support for the Soviet transition, tied to U.N.-sanctioned negotiations with warring Afghan factions. Mikhail Gorbachev seized on those regional negotiations to shore up the legitimacy of his Afghan proxies and lure as many allies to his Kabul stability project as possible. Those talks, leading into 1992, ultimately failed not only because the Soviet Union collapsed, but also because the United States did not take the process and all its regional complexity seriously. The first Bush administration was understandably distracted by the Cold War's end. It preferred in any event to concentrate on its partners in Pakistan, to the exclusion of other political strategies.

The Obama administration has a chance in 2011 to avoid repeating this historical error as it starts its own transition out of combat in Afghanistan. The administration needs a clearer political and regional negotiating strategy, aimed at reinforcing Afghan national unity and the isolation of violent Taliban.