There is no doubt about it now. This is Obama’s War. He took full ownership of it last night. From the history to the conduct of operations, warts and all. He acknowledged how and why the United States went into Afghanistan, why it has stayed, and why it will leave under his timetable, with all its caveats. But to many the speech may not provide the basis for winning the war, because the objectives are still uncertain and more importantly, Obama has uncertain allies around the world and in the region. Without help from all of them, the United States alone will not be able to prosecute a successful counterinsurgency nor exit as gracefully as the president’s timetable implies.
The NATO Secretary General’s immediate and unequivocal statement of support notwithstanding, political Europe has been a weak reed. France and Germany need to show more resolve and invest more in this fight. It is not clear if that situation will change dramatically. The Afghan government is also weak. President Hamid Karzai will not only need to produce an effective cabinet and government machinery but also reshape the Afghan national security forces in double-quick time to allow the United States military to exit safely.
Pakistan remains a house divided: it is not clear if the powerful military that has run Afghan policy since the 1980s is as ready to sign on to the Obama strategy against the Afghan Taliban as the civilian president may be. Indeed, President Asif Ali Zardari’s own political position appears tenuous as he is being forced to shed the extraordinary powers he inherited from Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Where the Pakistani Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, stands is uncertain at best, especially without military backing. So, it is unclear who speaks for Pakistan today and it is unclear to what extent a common response has come from Pakistan’s power centers to the Obama letter delivered via National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones. President Obama’s veiled threat that the U.S. will not “tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known” will not resonate in the corridors of army headquarters. The Pakistan army is already overstretched in the fight against its domestic Taliban and under attack by Punjabi militant groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, while looking over its shoulders at India’s growing economic and military might and powerful presence inside Afghanistan. Till India and Pakistan come to terms with each other on the basis of common security and economic goals, Pakistan’s attention will remain diverted to the east. Obama’s advisers hinted at attempts to persuade India and Pakistan to desist from using Afghanistan as an area of competition. What leverage they have to effect that change is unclear.
If the United States takes unilateral action inside Pakistan, the public sentiment that has been poisoned by the drone attacks, among other things, may go against any major shift in Pakistan’s position on the Afghan Taliban who take shelter in the western borderlands. For most Pakistanis, al Qaeda is a vague and distant entity. Their immediate concerns are food, energy, and internal security. The U.S. recognizes these concerns but till the government of Pakistan takes actions to resolve its internal challenges itself, no amount of aid or advice from the outside will restore stability and growth to Pakistan.
It was good to hear Obama speak directly to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. That message needs to be repeated often, especially to let them know that the United States will help them directly in improving their lives and will not make short-term deals with individuals or groups at the center of power. Speeding up promised aid and opening up investment opportunities and the creation of jobs in infrastructure and manufacturing Pakistan will go a long way to change the mindset of the Pakistani masses.
Al Qaeda is not a large or powerful presence in Afghanistan. The Pashtun Taliban are. Success in Afghanistan will not come from simply beating them on the battlefield. Recall that the Soviets conquered most of Afghanistan and occupied nearly every hill, many times over. Success will come from providing security to the Afghan people in a substantial portion of the Pashtun belt. Protecting the population against the insurgents by embedding forces in communities will be the key to success in the south and east, not in setting up powerful fortresses, as the Soviets discovered. And they had more troops in the country than the United States has now. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s war plan to translate the President’s strategy into action will determine the extent to which he can buy time and space for the Afghans to take over this war and begin providing good governance.
The President may have bought some political time at home by giving his general the troops he sought, rapidly, and extending to next summer the increased U.S. military commitment and additional support from his allies. Will that forward movement be enough for his fellow Democrats to fend off attacks on them during the 2010 elections? And will there be results enough in 2011 to sustain his own re-election bid in 2012? The political “war plan” of “General” Rahm Emmanuel for U.S. elections was clearly behind the timeline for the field operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan set by the President in his speech. He needs to win both wars decisively to buck history. But he will need a lot of help from his friends at home and abroad. An immediate test will be an unequivocal statement of support from the leadership of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Stay tuned for the silence.
Shuja Nawaz is the Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. This essay previously appeared at Foreign Policy.