The Obama administration will be stepping up the pressure on the Karzai government and NATO to do more in Afghanistan while simultaneously sharply cutting back the goals of the mission there.

Helene Cooper and Thom Shanker report for NYT:

President Obama intends to adopt a tougher line toward Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, as part of a new American approach to Afghanistan that will put more emphasis on waging war than on development, senior administration officials said Tuesday. Mr. Karzai is now seen as a potential impediment to American goals in Afghanistan, the officials said, because corruption has become rampant in his government, contributing to a flourishing drug trade and the resurgence of the Taliban. Among those pressing for Mr. Karzai to do more, the officials said, are Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The officials portrayed the approach as a departure from that of President Bush, who held videoconferences with Mr. Karzai every two weeks and sought to emphasize the American role in rebuilding Afghanistan and its civil institutions. They said that the Obama administration would work with provincial leaders as an alternative to the central government, and that it would leave economic development and nation-building increasingly to European allies, so that American forces could focus on the fight against insurgents.

“If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who served under Mr. Bush and is staying on under Mr. Obama, told Congress on Tuesday. He said there was not enough “time, patience or money” to pursue overly ambitious goals in Afghanistan, and he called the war there “our greatest military challenge.” Mr. Gates said last week that previous American goals for Afghanistan had been “too broad and too far into the future,” language that differed from Mr. Bush’s policies.


With the forces of the Taliban and Al Qaeda mounting more aggressive operations in eastern and southern Afghanistan, administration officials said they saw little option but to focus on the military campaign. They said Europeans would be asked to pick up more of the work on reconstruction, police training and cooperation with the Afghan government. They also said much of the international effort might shift to helping local governments and institutions, and away from the government in Kabul.  “It’s not about dumping reconstruction at all,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic delicacy of the subject. “What we’re trying to do is to focus on the Al Qaeda problem. That has to be our first priority.”

Mr. Gates said Tuesday that under the redefined Afghan strategy, it would be vital for NATO allies to “provide more civilian support.” In particular, he said, the allies should be more responsible for building civil society institutions in Afghanistan, a task that had been falling to American forces. He also demanded that allies “step up to the plate” and defray costs of expanding the Afghan Army, an emerging power center, whose leaders could emerge as rivals to Mr. Karzai.

Mr. Gates added that the United States should focus on limited goals. “My own personal view is that our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and our allies, and whatever else we need to do flows from that objective,” he said.

Spencer Ackerman, writing at The Washington Independent, notes that “Gates’ measured tone in the hearing was hardly a departure from his style in the Bush administration” but that he “appeared freer to voice concern about the course of the war during Tuesday’s hearing than he was as a Bush cabinet official, befitting his new status as an architect of policy rather than an inheritor of it.”

Moving away from the Bush administration’s expansive rhetoric about creating an Afghan democracy, Gates mused that the U.S. needed to set “modest, realistic goals” in Afghanistan, making clear that he sees “no purely military solution” for the insurgency, preferring a “fully integrated civil-military strategy.” The U.S.’s minimum goals should be to ensure “an Afghan people who do not provide a safe haven for Al Qaeda” and provide an unspecified degree of support for the Afghan government. While the U.S. could assist the Afghanistan government’s economic efforts, Gates warned, “If we set as the goal [creating] a Central Asian Valhalla, we will lose.” He offered only tepid support to an idea, floated by McKiernan, that NATO should become more actively involved in counternarcotics efforts to combat sources of insurgent fundraising. And while he supports training and equipping increased numbers of Afghan security forces, he envisioned merely “a capable, reasonably honest Afghan police” force — a concession to the rampant levels of police corruption in Afghanistan.

Of the three parts of this revised policy, I’m highly skeptical of the two which are outside American control.  

The idea that Hamid Karzai can “do more” is predicated on the notion that he’s somehow in control of what happens in Afghanistan; if so, he would be the first leader in the history of that nominal state with such influence.  In reality, he’s got a lot of power in Kabul and varying amounts of say in the thirty-four provinces.  

While shifting the demands on NATO from providing more combat troops, a virtual non-starter, to “more civilian support” and funding is a giant step in the direction of reality, it’s nonetheless quite doubtful that such assistance will be forthcoming in meaningful measure.  European publics have turned decidedly against the conflict and it’s virtually inconceivable that their political leaders will buck their wishes in these turbulent times.  Ditto, incidentally, ponying up significant amounts of additional cash for a mission most consider futile when domestic economies are in such sad shape.

The one thing that’s within our ability to change, however, is most important one:  setting achievable goals for the mission.  As Henry Kissinger told the Council recently, our implied goal in Afghanistan is a democratic state — in the fullest sense of the term, including equal rights for women and religious tolerance — that is centrally governed.  Given Afghanistan’s history, he argued that we “need to examine whether this is a conceivable objective.”  If Gates’ testimony is any indication, it appears that examination has taken place and resulted in the only plausible conclusion:  Afghanistan is simply not going to be a modern, stable democracy within the timeframe that we can sustain a huge commitment of resources.

Given that, Kissinger suggested we “need a different strategy”  that is “designed to prevent what we fear most: the return of a terrorist state.”  While Gates did not put it quite so bluntly, it looks like that’s precisely our new baseline strategy.   It’s not a slam dunk that we can achieve that, either — but at least it’s not tilting at windmills.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 


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