Obama’s Speech About Afghanistan

Last night, President Obama spoke at West Point and laid out his strategy for the war in Afghanistan.  He announced that 30,000 more troops would be deployed there, but also said that a withdrawal of American troops would begin in July 2011.  The three core elements of the strategy are:

1. A military effort to stem the Taliban’s momentum and increase the capacity of the Afghan security forces to the extent that the US can start withdrawing in 18 months.

2. A civilian surge to provide assistance to NGOs and Afghan officials.

3. Developing an effective partnership with Pakistan to combat militants based in Pakistani territory.

It is very doubtful that sufficient military progress will be achieved in the next 18 months to allow American forces to withdraw from Afghanistan.  Hopes of training enough Afghan army and police personnel to secure the country without the continued assistance of 100,000 American troops in that timeframe are almost laughable.  The vast majority of Afghans are illiterate, which makes training Afghan soldiers difficult because manuals cannot be used extensively, and it is unclear if the US military will have enough trainers on hand given the need to use the surge troops for combat duty. 

A civilian surge is unlikely to succeed for two reasons.  One is that security problems and rampant corruption will hamper attempts to promote development and good governance.  The second is that the US simply does not have enough civilian capacity to be effective in warzones, partly because civilians cannot be ordered to go into dangerous areas and stay there.

Developing an effective counterterrorism/counterinsurgency partnership with Pakistan, which the US has been trying to do for the last eight years, will probably continue to be an elusive goal.  Members of Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan because the Pakistanis do not believe it is in their interest to take on those militants; the security forces in Pakistan are busy fighting the Pakistani Taliban, not the Afghan Taliban, which is a separate group.  The president’s declaration that the US will begin to leave Afghanistan in 2011 will only strengthen the Pakistani government’s desire to maintain ties with the Afghan Taliban and not antagonize them in case the they come back into power after American forces pullout.

President Obama is either naive about the prospects of success in the next 18 months or, more likely, he is promising a fairly quick exit to maintain political support for the war effort.  He will almost certainly be faced with the choice of bringing troops home before the mission is accomplished or violating his pledge to start reducing America’s footprint in Afghanistan in 2011.

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