President Barack Obama told congressional leaders Thursday that the “era of the blank check is over” in Afghanistan. But the plan he laid out Friday looks very much like a blank check for an increased military and civilian presence in Afghanistan that is unlikely to be successful or to end any time soon.
The Afghan plan, which is supposed to have been the result of a “bottom-up” reassessment of the situation and goals in that country, looks more like the typical plan assembled by a committee composed of people with divergent interests and no coherent guiding vision.
Bring in 17,000 more military people? Already under way. Send in another 4,000 military people to train the Afghan army and police, which we have supposedly been doing for almost seven years? Check. Send in hundreds, maybe thousands, more civilian workers to — well it’s a little vague, but roads and electricity seem to be on the agenda. Redouble diplomatic efforts? That, too. Make it a regional conflict that includes Pakistan? Of course.
President Obama is better at phrasing objectives so they sound more realistic than those of former President George W. Bush. As the Financial Times put it, the “president’s strategy is expected to shift the focus of operations in Afghanistan to ensuring that al-Qaida cannot attack the U.S., which represents a ratcheting down of the ambitious goals of George W. Bush, the former president, who pledged to instill democracy in Afghanistan.”
The narrowing of the mission, however, is belied by a broadening of the U.S. resources — more civilians than President Bush ever contemplated and a 60 percent increase in the $2 billion a month Afghan operations now cost, projected for at least the next five years — being committed by the Obama administration.
If the goal were really to ensure that Afghanistan is not a base for international operations by al-Qaida, it would be possible to declare “mission accomplished” and end U.S. and NATO military operations now. The evidence shows that al-Qaida is confined to Pakistani territory. The Taliban, while it showed itself to be tyrannical and obnoxious when it ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, is not believed to have international ambitions. So the core U.S. interest in Afghanistan could be satisfied by informing whatever government emerges there that any emergence of al-Qaida bases will be met by swift and devastating action to destroy them.
That doesn’t mean neutralizing or destroying al-Qaida in Pakistan will be easy. The Pakistani government is still fragile, and it has never established effective control over the northwest provinces and federally administered tribal areas where al-Qaida is believed to be holed up. U.S. military strikes in Pakistan are likely to alienate the Pakistani population and harm the stability of the government until al-Qaida is effectively destroyed, if it ever is.
A more measured approach, involving improved intelligence capabilities and the occasional Special Forces actions, is more likely to be effective than ramped-up overt military activity.
If the goal is to destroy al-Qaida, however, beefing up military activities in Afghanistan, as Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute’s Center for Peace and Liberty, said, is not only not necessary, it is more likely to be counterproductive.
“U.S. military activity in Afghanistan has already contributed to a resurgence of Taliban and other insurgent activity in Pakistan,” he said.
Instead of coming up with a fresh approach, President Obama is doubling down on the Bush approach. We certainly hope it works, but it doesn’t seem likely.