After eight years of war and huge expenditures of national treasure, is the United States really serious about succeeding in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
Or, given the seemingly intractable nature of these conflicts and the exquisite difficulties of coping with foreign cultures, are the United States and its allies embarked on a mission that is unwinnable by most definitions? These questions bound both President Obama’s predicament and his choices.
If the United States is serious about succeeding, can the Obama administration deliver what is needed, assuming that such needs as well as the meaning of success can be accurately defined for both Afghanistan and Pakistan? Or are we stuck in an Afghan quagmire doomed by centuries of unhappy history in which extrication is the only workable, long-term option and embroiled in a Pakistan where our on-again, off-again relationships have created far too much scar tissue to enable short-term repairs? These questions sharpen Obama’s predicament and his choices.
This predicament was exacerbated by last week’s widely reported leak of two very sensitive memos written by American Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry. Eikenberry argued that without a dramatic shift in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s policies, further U.S. troop increases would prove futile, immediately setting records on Washington’s Richter scale for measuring political earthquakes. Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general with two command tours in Afghanistan as well as service as deputy chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, appeared in direct conflict with the commander of all NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his recommendation for more troops.
At the heart of this predicament is another simple question whose answer has proved quite elusive after the heady days of Operation Enduring Freedom that routed the Taliban in late 2001. Why are we and our allies still in Afghanistan? The answer is usually given in terms of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for al-Qaida and ensuring Pakistan remains a stable state. But are those aims best met with more troops and billions more dollars? And is an increasingly skeptical public who by a small majority favor withdrawal susceptible to any answer as to why we are there?
Regarding Pakistan, the refrain is that it is the “strategic center of gravity” for the region. Yet U.S. support for Pakistan has been miserly when compared with the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If Pakistan is that strategically important, is the United States capable of matching actions with intentions? So far the answer has been no.
Presumably, the Obama administration has made up its mind about future strategy and force levels for Afghanistan. No doubt it will continue to pressure Karzai on reforming his government, reducing corruption, extending governance to the provinces and creating economic opportunities. That this pressure has been ongoing since Karzai became president five years ago does not mean it cannot succeed. Unfortunately, as Eikenberry observed, a radical change in that regard is not a good bet.
To test the seriousness of America’s capacity to win in Afghanistan and Pakistan, consider a simple test for each. In Afghanistan, nearly 30 international Provincial Reconstruction Teams are the primary means for helping to bring some level of governance and economic progress. Manned with both military and civilian personnel, each PRT reports back not to ISAF or NATO headquarters but to national capitals. There have been many reasons for this. However, without the ability to coordinate and control these teams, the results have at best been uneven and so far incapable of reducing the insurgency by improving the lives of Afghans.
PRTs must be put under a single, unified commander. If, for whatever reasons, this test cannot be met, Afghanistan is not automatically lost. However, the seriousness of our endeavor is called into profound question.
In Pakistan, a frequently asked question is what is the single most important thing that the United States can do to help the government in overcoming the insurgency threatening that nation and its young democracy? The answer is the test of our seriousness. Reduce the textile tariffs that have discriminated against Pakistan.
If that could be done, with the stroke of a pen, the growth of the Pakistani economy would be greatly accelerated, potentially millions of jobs created, and billions added to its GDP. Far better is that among the elites, much of the poisonous anti-Americanism would be neutralized by such a step. Yet the domestic lobbies in the Southern cotton-growing states and the pro-Indian forces remain formidable obstacles. So the choice is clear — are we or are we not serious about succeeding?
Clearly, even if both tests could be met, that is not an absolute guarantor of success. But at least the seriousness of our policies would become clearer and Obama’s predicament made slightly easier.
Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. This essay was previously published as “Testing Obama’s predicament” in UPI.