Obama's Afghan plan: comprehensive and campaigning
The long awaited Obama blueprint form Afghanistan has appeared. It's certainly comprehensive - acknowledging the importance of 'non-kinetic' efforts such as aid, reconciliation talks with 'reconcilable' Taleban, and training Afghan troops. It also gives a regional focus to the effort, with much emphasis on Pakistan, and plans for the formation of a diplomatic Contact Group to involve important neigbours including Iran, India or the Central Asian republics in find a solution to the problem.
It begs though some questions both about the degree to which he wants US and other Nato forces to fight the Taleban and about his whether President Obama's approach to political problems needs to be quite so partisan.
He defined his country's central aim as: "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That is the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you".
Under the rubric of defeating al-Qaeda you could justify largely withdrawing from rural Afghanistan, since you won't find many al-Qaeda types there. The logic for continuing the fight in places like Helmand, the President's advisers might argue, lies in his phrase about preventing militant Islamists from regaining power in Afghanistan. Even so, one could easily argue that such an objective does not necessarily justify largescale involvement of Nato troops in Afghan counter insurgency operations. Elsewhere in the speech however the president said, "we and our friends and allies must reverse the Taliban's gains". This seems to imply a much larger involvement in counter-insurgency. We will wait to see how commanders on the ground resolve this dilemma.
The other curious aspect about this announcement was the sense in which it still sounded a bit like a campaign speech rather than that of a Commander in Chief. The centrality of al-Qaeda and 9/11 in the early part of his argument sounded like an attempt to convince his Democratic base that the struggle is still worth it. The emphasis on turning over more of the fight to Afghan forces has already led some to dub this announcement an 'exit strategy'.
The president also appeared to blame the Bush administration a couple of times for neglecting Afghanistan in favour of Iraq. Today he announcemed that 4,000 troops would be sent to train bigger Afghan security forces but that "those resources have been denied because of the war in Iraq". This sounded like a criticism of President Bush for taking his eye off the ball, yet it is hard to believe that the US armed services could not have provided a training mission of that size if local commanders had asked for it, say one year ago.