Mission Drift in Afghanistan

During an interview with Jim Lehrer which aired earlier today on PBS, President Obama discussed the situation in Afghanistan.  Here are some excerpts from that interview:


Lehrer: What are the goals for Afghanistan right now?


Obama: Well, I don’t think that they’re clear enough, that’s part of the problem.  We’ve seen a sense of drift in the mission in Afghanistan, and that’s why I’ve ordered a head-to-toe, soup-to-nuts review of our approach in Afghanistan.


Now, I can articulate some very clear, minimal goals in Afghanistan, and that is that we make sure that it’s not a safe haven for Al Qaeda.  How we achieve that goal, what kinds of strategies and tactics we need to put in place, I don’t think that we’ve thought that through, and we haven’t used the entire arsenal of American power.


We’ve been thinking very militarily, but we haven’t been as effective in thinking diplomatically, we haven’t been thinking effectively around the development side of the equation. Obviously, we haven’t been thinking regionally, recognizing that Afghanistan is actually an Afghanistan/Pakistan problem, because right now the militants, the extremists who are attacking U.S. troops are often times coming over the border from Pakistan.


Lehrer: Is there a victory definition for Afghanistan now or is that part of your thinking at this moment?


Obama: I think there are achievable goals in Afghanistan, and the achievable goal is to make sure it’s not a safe haven for terrorists, to make sure that the Afghan people are able to determine their own fate. One of the things that I think we have to communicate in Afghanistan is that we have no interest or aspiration to be there over the long term. There’s a long history, as you know, in Afghanistan of rebuffing what is seen as an occupying force, and we have to be mindful of that history as we think about our strategy.


Lehrer: But unlike what you talked about today, of course, is that a, quote, “exit” from Iraq, you’re not even there yet in terms of when – if and when and how – we might exit from Afghanistan, if I hear you correctly?


Obama: I think until we have a clear strategy, we’re not going to have a clear exit strategy. And my goal is to get U.S. troops home as quickly as possible without leaving a situation that allows for potential terrorist attacks against the United States.


Keep in mind something that is important, and that is, Afghanistan is not a U.S. mission, it’s a NATO mission, and one of the things that I think has been lost is the sense of international partnership in dealing with the problem of international terrorism.


Obama’s answers to Lehrer’s questions bring up some of the key problems related to the conflict in Afghanistan and the difficulty in solving them.  One is that the US does not have a strategy, and Obama’s recent decision to deploy an additional 8,000 US troops to Afghanistan before developing the necessary strategic plan and tactics could be considered irresponsible.  The only reasonable explanation for his action is that the situation has deteriorated so much that he felt he had to send more soldiers to plug the hole in the dike as an emergency measure.


Obama stated two goals for Afghanistan: prevent it from becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda, and make sure that the Afghans are able to determine their own fate with a democratic political system.  Yet these goals seem to be incompatible with his desire to avoid a long term presence there.  The Afghan government is weak and incapable of defending itself or its people from the Taliban and Al Qaeda.  The only way to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan and preserve a democratic form of government is to keep a large US military contingent in the country.  If the US pulled out, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and warlords would take over.


Obama also mentioned the need to focus on diplomacy and economic development.  For years the US government has tried to persuade Pakistan to go after the militants in its border regions with Afghanistan, but the Pakistanis have proven incapable or unwilling to do that successfully.  The new democratic government in Pakistan appears weak politically and in terms of being able to provide security, so the prospects of a change in the situation vis-à-vis cooperation with the US seem dim.  The need to obtain more military assistance from other members of the NATO alliance is clear given that they have only provided 18,000 troops compared to 38,000 by the US.  With violence spiking in Afghanistan it may be difficult to convince American allies to send more soldiers into harms way.


In terms of development, it will take tens of billions of dollars if not more to build the infrastructure and other economic assets needed to significantly improve Afghanistan’s economy.  With the current financial crisis facing the developed world it is unlikely that governments will be willing to spend that kind of money abroad when so much is needed at home.  Even if the financial commitment is made it would be difficult if not impossible to complete development projects given the high level of violence in the areas where they are needed most.  NATO simply does not have nearly enough troops in Afghanistan to pursue the clear, hold and build counterinsurgency strategy that was fairly successful in reducing violence in Iraq during the surge.


It appears that the US will have to decide between two desired objectives.  It can either keep tens of thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan indefinitely to prevent Al Qaeda and the Taliban from taking over, or it can bring its troops home in the next few years and leave a power vacuum which anti-American forces will undoubtedly fill. 


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