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Obama's Afghanistan Plan: The Partner Problem

Richard Weitz

President Barack Obama offered a well-articulated if somewhat hazy vision last night of his plans to stabilize the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. The core idea is to increase foreign support for the Afghan government and security forces in order to allow them to develop the capacity to improve governance and confront the Taliban insurgency more independently. The basic problem with implementing this strategy is that the Afghan government and security forces continue to experience numerous difficulties. In addition, the administration’s other sought-after foreign partners are either leaving the field of battle or refusing to enter it.

In order for the president’s plan—which calls for surging 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan for 18 months—to work, an effective Afghan security structure must be able to take their place once they are subsequently withdrawn. Obama indicated last night that he expected Afghans to assume this role, arguing that the temporary troop increase—of which 5,000 of the troops will be dedicated to providing additional military training to the Afghan army— “will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces.”

But administration representatives have made clear that they consider the central government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai hopelessly corrupt and ineffective. Numerous reports also indicate that, despite extensive foreign training programs and other support, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police have little capacity to defeat the Taliban insurgents without continued direct U.S. assistance. Expanding their size still further will compound the additional problem that the Afghan government lacks the budget to sustain such a large security apparatus. The Afghan forces’ persistent weaknesses are one of the main reasons why the Obama administration has felt compelled to send more than 50,000 American troops to Afghanistan since it assumed office less than a year ago.

In addition to relying on what would amount to an almost miraculously rapid improvement in the quality of the Afghan government and its security forces, the administration also hopes to induce Pakistan’s government to curb the longstanding assistance many Pakistanis —including some working in the country’s security forces—provide the Afghan insurgents. Although Pakistani President Asif Zardari might be inclined to follow Obama’s lead, he is too weak to enforce his preferences on the Pakistani military. The Pakistani army thus far has focused its counterinsurgency efforts on countering the Pakistani Taliban, which has been conducting a murderous wave of suicide bombings against the security forces as well as government and civilian targets within Pakistan. In contrast, they have declined to repress the Afghan Taliban, their erstwhile allies who have established sanctuaries in remote regions along the Afghan-Pakistan border, which serve as support bases for the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Obama’s strategy also counts on other foreign partners to help share the Afghan war burden. Washington’s European allies, for example, are expected to provide at least an additional 5,000 troops to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. In his speech, Obama urged U.S. allies to understand that “what is at stake is not simply a test of NATO’s credibility—what is at stake is the security of our allies, and the common security of the world.” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen helpfully added that, “I am confident that other allies and partners will also make a substantial increase in their contributions.”

The source of Rasmussen’s confidence—which runs against the current statements of NATO leaders and past experience—is unclear. European public opinion displays little enthusiasm for sending more soldiers to fight in Afghanistan, leaving European governments caught between the conflicting pressures of their American ally on one side and their electorates on the other. To balance domestic anti-war sentiments with their desire to support Washington in Afghanistan, European governments have until now limited their troop presence, constrained the permissible military activities they can perform (the so-called “national caveats”), and, in some cases, pledged to withdraw their contingents in the near future. Only British Prime Minister Gordon Brown answered Obama’s call these past few days by pledging to send a few hundred more troops to Afghanistan.

Finally, there are the missing partners: the countries that administration officials have periodically cited as possible new allies in Afghanistan. Russia is allowing the United States and other NATO governments to transit military supplies through its territory to their contingents in Afghanistan, thereby supplementing the precarious southern supply route through Pakistan. But Russian officials are now hinting they may limit this support unless NATO countries agree to discuss Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal for a new European Security Treaty, which could weaken NATO’s role in Eurasia.

Iran and China are other missing partners. An active partnership between Tehran and Washington in Afghanistan, where they arguably share common interests, is unlikely while their nuclear dispute remains so acute. But the reluctance of China to provide more support in Afghanistan is disappointing, given that this was a major goal of Obama’s visit to Beijing last month. China has become a major economic stakeholder in Afghanistan, but has thus far declined to contribute to NATO’s security programs in the country. Chinese policymakers need to understand that their policy of free-riding on American and NATO troop contributions in Afghanistan risks depriving Chinese firms and investors of the benign security environment they need to fully exploit these opportunities.

Although the Obama administration is not primarily responsible for any of these problems, its preferred Afghan strategy will remain hostage to their resolution.

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