U.S. President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan speech Tuesday, well advertised in advance and delivered at West Point for added effect, provoked predictable criticism from both the left and right.
Faced with a set of abysmally bad choices and conditions in Afghanistan that grow worse not better, finding fault with the administration’s policy decision was as easy as changing television channels. Unfortunately, the real flaws and limitations in the plan were largely ignored or missed.
No strategist or politician, however brilliant or clever, could have created an approach that was capable of guaranteeing a quick reversal of the “dire” conditions posed by the conflict and upheaval in Afghanistan and the region. But the problem lies not with the craftsman or the policy architect. The problem is the tool kit. That tool kit does not contain the right or effective instruments to achieve the aims and objectives set by the president and his able national security team.
Consider what should be the three most critical tools in the box. First is the means to bring governance to Afghans. In this regard, the government in Kabul is incapable certainly over the next year or two and almost certainly for the longer term. Appointing an overseer or foreign viceroy to put some steel into President Hamid Karzai’s backbone is entirely infeasible and will no doubt force the resignation of the three or four capable ministers in the government who do not wish their authority bypassed. Hence, the job of bringing governance will fall on the shoulders of an already overstretched U.S. and NATO military and a so-called surge in civilian capacity that is a fiction. Unfortunately, even if the president had agreed with commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s upper-limit request of 80,000 additional troops, this nation building is not a job any military can do with confidence.
Second, the Afghan government has been roundly and correctly challenged on the grounds of corruption and waste. But even if those excesses could be magically corrected — which they cannot — this criticism misses the point. It is not Afghan waste and incompetence in managing its resources that is the issue. It is the incompetence and waste with which the tool of Western aid has been so grossly mismanaged that needs immediate redress.
The investigations of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan who reports to Congress – not the White House – suggest the scope of mismanagement. These could have been harsher. Specifically, for every dollar spent on Afghanistan reconstruction and aid, about a dime goes to the Afghan people. If this tool cannot be made to work, then all the king’s horses and men will not turn Afghanistan into a functioning state.
Third and most important is the tool on which NATO and the Obama administration have bet the war — fielding capable Afghan security forces. As pro-Obama supporters assert, it is the Afghan surge that is critical and not the influx of 30,000 or 40,000 more U.S. and NATO troops that will take months to carry out. The notion is to build an Afghan force of some 400,000 army and police quickly and turn security over to them much as the United States tried to do in Vietnam with the Vietnamization program.
In theory, such logic is clear. However, McChrystal himself concludes it will take three to five years to stand up such a force. And some of his advisers believe this is optimistic. To others, the ethnic and illiteracy realities are more constraining. Enlisting sufficient Pashtun recruits to serve under an officer corps long headed by Tajiks is a non-starter even if literacy were not an issue – which it is. The police are even more problematic.
And if this tool were not sufficiently dull and in need of purchase or replacement, who will pay for it? Surely not the Afghans, who are broke. And is the West prepared to underwrite these costs for long?
The speech was delivered with the verve and rhetoric people now expect of this president. It bought some breathing room for the administration with an increasingly dubious public, although Republican critics in Congress and among the chattering classes will continue to fire away with some justifiable effect. During this grace period, the administration must look hard on fixing these three tools of governance; development and reconstruction; and recruiting and training a functioning Afghan security force with far greater intensity than ever before.
The administration has purposely sent its best and brightest senior civilian and military leaders to Afghanistan to strengthen its hand. But even the best of us need the right tools to get the job done. This is precisely where Obama must focus his administration if there is to be any kind of happy or at least not disastrous landing when we and NATO finally move to our exit strategy.