Obama's strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan

The President's plan for the increasingly troubled region is ambitious, although his goals are more limited than Bush's.

Ron Edmonds/AP
Flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, President Obama announced a new comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Friday.

President Obama unveiled a new Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy Friday that includes new troops -- beyond the 17,000 additional US soldiers the president has already ordered ­ new civilian development personnel, and new aid.

But the plan also for the first time sets benchmarks – or, as the president preferred to call them, "metrics" – for US involvement in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, suggesting the military engagement is not open-ended and that both the Afghan and Pakistani governments must deliver on particular objectives. Those include reining in corruption for the Afghans and closing down Al Qaeda and Taliban safe havens for the Pakistanis.

The new "comprehensive" strategy underscores how both Afghanistan, where 38,000 US troops are already on the ground, and Pakistan, a nuclear power threatened by a growing Islamic militancy, are crucial to the battle with Islamic extremism. The futures of the two countries are "inextricably linked," Mr. Obama said.

In explaining the new strategy before an audience of military and diplomatic officials and flanked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Mr. Obama invoked the memory of the 9/11 attacks more forcefully than ever before in his young presidency.

He revisited the history of Al Qaeda planning the attacks from camps in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and he insisted that Al Qaeda is now "actively planning attacks on the United States" from "safe havens in Pakistan." As a result, Obama says, "For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world."

More limited goals than Bush

Perhaps mindful that the strong reference to 9/11 might remind listeners of the former administration's justification for and handling of two wars, Obama also pointedly declared that the US was "not blindly staying the course" in Afghanistan. The new strategy is designed to "restore basic security in Afghanistan," he said, without reference to the lofty goals of democratization and freedom set by former president Bush.

The new strategy calls for 4,000 additional troops to focus on training Afghanistan's army and police. Such training is already under way by US and NATO forces, but the addition of several thousand new trainers reflects reports from the field that the training undertaken so far is yielding results. The plan also calls for several hundred additional civilian government and development experts, while it endorses a proposal before Congress for $1.5 billion in development aid to Pakistan over each of the next five years.

Announcement of the anticipated plan is the result of a two-month inter-agency review that consulted military, diplomatic and civilian development officials and experts as well as the leaders of the two principle countries involved and NATO partners. It paves the way for discussing the new strategy with international partners next week.

Secretary Clinton will attend an international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague next Tuesday armed with the new strategy. Subsequently, Obama will take it up with NATO leaders when he attends the Alliance's 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg, France, next Friday. Those two events will permit Obama to underscore his point that the challenge presented by Afghanistan and Pakistan "is not simply an American problem -- far from it -- [but] is instead an international security challenge of the highest order."

To support that position, Obama reminded the foreign ambassadors who attended the strategy unveiling that terrorist attacks in London, Bali, North Africa, and Kabul and Islamabad have been linked to "Al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan."

Situation in the region deteriorating

The new strategy reflects concerns that surfaced even before the new administration took office that the situation in both Afghanistan and Pakistan was rapidly deteriorating, in part because the US and Allied presence in Afghanistan lacked a clear objective. Dispatched during the transition between administrations to the region, Vice-President Joe Biden returned to Washington "very worried" about the absence among US troops and officials of a clear idea of what they were doing, administration officials say.

"When this administration came into office we found a policy adrift and a lack of focus on the central challenge," says Denis McDonough, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

The administration says the new strategy narrows the focus of US involvement to Al Qaeda.

"Disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda – the president set down a marker that this is our goal in Afghanistan," adds Caitlin Hayden, National Security Council director for communications.

History of foreign occupation

But the heavy emphasis on economic development and governance, while eschewing the imposition of Switzerland-level foreign standards, also reflects an understanding that the US and its allies cannot succeed if they are seen by locals to be simply serving their own interests. Foreign armies installed in Afghanistan with expressly domestic security objectives -- the Soviet Army invasion of the 1990's for example – have come to be seen as occupiers and have not fared well.

In unveiling his plan, Obama made no mention of the growing use of unmanned Predator drones to attack and kill terrorists located in Pakistan's autonomous tribal regions. The missile attacks have stirred already strong anti-American sentiment among Pakistanis – a challenge that would surely be exacerbated if the US decides to follow through on the idea of extending the drone strikes to areas of western Pakistan under the Pakistani government's control.

The new focused strategy is viewed as a step forward by many analysts, though some are seconding the president's warning that the road ahead in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains perilous.

Pointing to data showing an expansion last year of Afghan territory where the Taliban holds a permanent presence to 72 percent, and significant increases in the number of suicide and roadside bombing attacks, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says almost all indicators point to a "rising threat."

In a new report, Mr. Cordesman commends recent efforts to lay out to the American public the challenge the US faces, but says more "transparency" and honesty about the complexity of the conflict is necessary.

Critics urge more limited role

Others fault Obama's new plan, saying more troops and more money are not the answer. Saying that "most of the greatest successes scored against Al Qaeda since 9/11 have not relied on large numbers of US troops," Malou Innocent of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says small-team special operations and short-term "capacity building" are a better answer. Extensive development projects, she adds, require security coverage "at a level we cannot provide."

The president's strategy also includes a nod towards Tehran. To emphasize his conviction that the challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan require a regional approach, Obama announced creation of a "contact group" of countries from Central Asia, the Gulf, China, India, and notably including Iran.

Administration officials say no official invitations to join such a group have been extended, but inclusion of Iran reflects both memory of the helpful role Iran played early in the war with Afghanistan's Taliban, and recognition that Tehran is more likely to do mischief if left outside.

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