The Afghanistan Problem: Can Obama Avoid a Quagmire?

The Afghanistan Problem: Can Obama Avoid a Quagmire?

On the Friday after he was inaugurated, Barack Obama held a full-scale National Security Council meeting about the most serious foreign policy crisis he is facing — the deteriorating war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “It was a pretty alarming meeting,” said one senior Administration official. “The President was extremely cool and in control,” said another participant. “But some people, especially political aides like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod who hadn’t been briefed on the situation, walked out of that meeting stunned.” The general feeling was expressed by one person who said at the very end, “Holy s***.”

The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan has only gotten worse since then. Both countries are suddenly boggled by constitutional crises; both Presidents — Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari — lead governments teetering on the edge of chaos. And the war is going badly on both sides of the border. The Pakistani Taliban has taken over the Swat Valley, a mere 100 miles from Islamabad, and has wreaked havoc with NATO supply lines into Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass; the Afghan Taliban staged a dramatic terrorist attack in downtown Kabul. In his first major decision as Commander in Chief, Obama promised an additional 17,000 troops for Afghanistan, but he still hasn’t fully defined the U.S. goal there, even though he repeatedly insisted during the campaign that this war — the war that began as an effort to find Osama bin Laden and dismantle al-Qaeda — was in the national interest and had to be won.

A policy review is under way — a fourth policy review; Obama was greeted by three when he took office, but none was entirely satisfactory. This was something of a surprise because one of the studies was conducted by General David Petraeus, whose counterinsurgency doctrine and strategic brilliance turned the tide in the Iraq war. In this case, Petraeus brought in hundreds of people from a range of government agencies and a raft of outside experts. “You had people from the Department of Agriculture weighing in,” one expert, a Petraeus admirer who participated in the study, told me. “There were too many cooks. The end result was lowest-common-denominator stuff. The usual Petraeus acuity wasn’t there.”

Indeed, several senior Obama Administration officials told me that the least heralded of the three studies — the one by General Douglas Lute, the Bush Administration’s “war czar” — was the most valuable. Lute, who is staying on in the Obama Administration, is known to be very skeptical about the Pakistani army’s willingness to fight the Taliban, and equally critical of the Karzai government in Afghanistan. But Lute was operating with the smallest staff, and didn’t provide much detail about what to do next.

Among other things, Petraeus’ review called for additional troops to be sent to Afghanistan, beyond the 17,000 Obama ordered. The Administration wasn’t ready to do that, at least not yet. And so, the fourth policy review was ordered up — this one conducted by Bruce Riedel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. The Riedel review won’t be done until the end of March, but it has already achieved some clarity about U.S. goals and priorities: “Afghanistan pales in comparison to the problems in Pakistan,” said an official familiar with Riedel’s thinking. “Our primary goal has to be to shut down the al-Qaeda and Taliban safe havens on the Pakistan side of the border. If that can be accomplished, then the insurgency in Afghanistan becomes manageable.”

That sounds reasonable enough, except that historically it has proved to be impossible. “People talk glibly of ‘the total disarmament of the frontier tribes’ as being the obvious policy,” wrote the young Winston Churchill, who gallivanted, a bit too gleefully, with a 19th century British expeditionary force through the areas where al-Qaeda and the Taliban are now ensconced. “But to obtain it would be as painful and as tedious an undertaking as to extract the stings of a swarm of hornets, with naked fingers.”

Through sheer brutality, the British were able to manage the area — now called Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province — but never quite subdue it. The chances of subduing it today are even more remote. “Obviously, we’re not going to invade Pakistan,” said a senior member of the Riedel review. “We have to convince the Pakistanis to do the job. But we haven’t had much luck with that in the past.” In fact, the Pakistani army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency have supported the Taliban as a counterforce against India’s influence in Afghanistan, just as they supported jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the Mumbai massacre. “Our hope is that the Pakistani army is beginning to understand that the Taliban represent an existential threat to their country,” said the Riedel team member. “Certainly, President Zardari understands that. The Taliban killed his wife, Benazir Bhutto, and he’s now target No. 1. But does he have any influence over the army And is the army really concerned about the threat I’ll believe it when I see it.”

What to do Actually, there’s a consensus within the Obama Administration about how to approach the Pakistan part of the problem. The policy might be described as comprehensive diplomacy accompanied by lots of money. The diplomatic task is to nudge India and Pakistan, who nearly came to an agreement in their eternal Kashmir dispute in 2007, toward a lessening of tensions in the hope that the Pakistani army will turn to the struggle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The money would come in a massive economic-aid package, the Kerry-Lugar bill, which would send $1.5 billion to Pakistan for each of the next five years — although how that aid would be distributed, a crucial question given Pakistan’s rampant corruption, has yet to be determined. Military aid to Pakistan will continue as well, but with more strings and supervision than during the Bush Administration. “We have to re-establish close personal relationships with the army,” said a senior member of the National Security Council, who was involved in an intense series of meetings with the Pakistani military leadership during the first week of March. “We have to be sure they’re on the same page as we are. Based on what I saw, they aren’t yet.”

And what about Afghanistan It is, once again, a sideshow, given the focus on Pakistan — but it is also where Obama’s most important decision will be made: To escalate or not The military is in favor of an Afghan surge to protect the entire population in the provinces affected by the Taliban insurgency. That could mean another 15,000 troops, or more, on top of the 17,000 already sent. It might even succeed; the Afghan people are terrified by the Taliban, but they do want law and order — which the corrupt Karzai government has failed to provide and Petraeus-style counterinsurgency tactics emphasize. But why expend that sort of effort on a sideshow

Obama’s civilian advisers fear a quagmire. But they know that some middle ground, between a “Central Asian Valhalla,” as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, and the current slide into chaos, has to be found. “We have to stabilize the military situation,” said an Obama aide. “Continue to build up the Afghan army, and help the government to become more effective.” In other words, hope that the disintegration of Afghanistan can be prevented while waiting — and hoping — for the Pakistanis to take effective action against the al-Qaeda and Taliban safe havens.

Taken together, the emerging Pakistan and Afghanistan policies sound … impossible, but unavoidable. They will also be politically treacherous. Already, John McCain has made it clear that his position on Afghanistan will be the same as it was on Iraq — in favor of more troops. Obama could easily find himself in the same sort of hawk-vs.-dove debate that has boggled American Presidents from Vietnam to Iraq. Traditionally, Presidents favor more troops — and precipitously lose public support. In this case, Obama’s margin for error is minuscule, given the enormity of the economic crisis. He simply can’t get bogged down in Afghanistan. And he simply can’t allow al-Qaeda and the Taliban free rein. And every option in between seems either a gamble or a fantasy.
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