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Decoding Obama's comments on war in Afghanistan: What did he really mean?

Obama’s citing of ‘fragile but reversible progress’ in his review of the war in Afghanistan is a signal to all the parties involved, including Americans, that the US withdrawal may go slowly.

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The president said the US has communicated a strong message to Pakistan that “the safe havens must be dealt with.” But privately, US intelligent officials are more categorical: Additional progress in Afghanistan will be almost impossible unless Pakistan does more, and soon, about the insurgents that cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

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“Pakistan, as always, remains the hardest part of this problem,” says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former CIA South Asia specialist who co-chaired Obama’s first Afghanistan-Pakistan review.

Mr. Riedel says the new strategic dialogue the US has established with Pakistan is a step in the right direction. But he adds that the “jihadist Frankenstein” that Pakistani officials helped create for their own purposes will not be easily shut down.

Obama was his most positive in describing what he called the “significant progress” that has been made in the “core” American goal of “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Compared with nine years ago, when the senior Al Qaeda leadership fled Afghanistan, Obama said the senior leaders are “hunkered down” and are finding it harder to recruit, to travel, to train, and to “plot and launch attacks.”

Riedel says the Al Qaeda leadership has felt significant impact from US drone attacks, and he offers the example of Osama bin Laden’s top assistant, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Noting that the number of anti-American “diatribes” issued by the Al Qaeda message man has dropped from one every other week to four so far this year, Riedel says, “His operational tempo has been disrupted.”

But by defining the war as at its “core” a battle with Al Qaeda, Obama is also relegating to secondary status the counterinsurgency goal of winning Afghan “hearts and minds” through better protection of civilians and improved delivery of basic services.

Whither nation-building?

In his White House statement, Obama underscored the core goal in Afghanistan – defeating Al Qaeda – by defining what it is not. “It’s not nation-building, because it is Afghans who must build their nation.”

Just a few minutes later, however, speaking from the same podium about the same review, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton emphasized the civilian component of the international effort in Afghanistan. Noting that the US alone has more than 1,000 civilian diplomats and specialists in Afghanistan, Secretary Clinton said that the “rebuilding of Afghanistan is an international commitment.”

So which is it? Dobbins says nation-building may have a bad name – thus Obama’s rejection of it – but he adds that the US will never be able to safely depart unless Afghans are able to run their country themselves.

“As a practical matter, we have to build indigenous capacity if we don’t want to stay there forever,” Dobbins says. “Call that work whatever you want … but a rose is a rose.”


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