Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Obama's new Afghan policy: more war, less development? Part II

U.S. troops in action in Afghanistan

In an earlier post, I spotlighted a New York Times story to the effect that President Obama was planning a revised Afghan policy that would "put more emphasis on waging war than on development." Under the new policy, the wide-ranging American efforts in Afghanistan to support the Karzai government and promote democratic reform and economic development throughout the country would give way to a sharper focus on meeting the military challenge from the Taliban, establishing security, and seeking out al Qaeda across the border with Pakistan.

Now, a widely leaked "secret report" to the new President from the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommends "that he shift U.S. strategy in Afghanistan — to focus on ensuring regional stability and eliminating Taliban and Al Qaida safe havens in Pakistan, rather than on achieving lasting democracy and a thriving Afghan economy."

The report will go to Obama in connection with the policy review he's conducting and his pending decision on military commanders' request for the rapid addition of 10,000 to 12,000 troops.

As he weighs his options, Obama will have to balance his calls during the campaign for intensified effort in Afghanistan against recent warnings by some of his senior advisers, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, of the dangers of getting deeply engaged in a place that has a long and bloody history of resisting foreign occupations.
Obama has indicated in recent weeks that he favors the idea of setting limited objectives, including ensuring that Afghanistan "cannot be used as a base to launch attacks against the United States." He cited the need for "more effective military action" while warning of Afghan hostility to foreign troops. His "No. 1 goal" is to stop Al Qaida, he said.


In their report, the Chiefs concluded that the existing American goals in Afghanistan, established by the Bush administration, are overly broad and ambitious. The report does not call for abandoning U.S. hopes of turning Afghanistan into a moderate Western-style democracy, or for halting counternarcotics efforts, but it does suggest making those steps part of a long-term vision, rather than a goal.

The two stories are consistent. In both, Gates and military officers are portrayed as seeking to narrow the U.S. military mission to the business of fighting, isolating and destroying al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters, while avoiding deeper involvement in the country's political affairs and economic development. It may seem counter intuitive that this amounts to "more war, less development," but that's exactly what it means in the short run. For a period of time, U.S. forces, significantly reinforced, would go on the offensive to establish a reasonable level of security. Over the long haul, however, the Afghans would be on their own. Gates and the Joint Chiefs believe that no achievable number of U.S. troops -- even hundreds of thousands -- would be enough to pacify Afghanistan and establish a durable Western-style government.

Presumably, Obama has not officially signed off on this change of strategy, but it's a good bet that he's on board or the Pentagon wouldn't be leaking these stories.

What to you think of the shift? Post a comment below.

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