Obama and Afghanistan/Pakistan I: Parsing the President's speech

Paul Wells: The new strategy looks different in several key ways

Obama and Afghanistan/Pakistan I: Parsing the President's speechI’m going to post a bunch of little observations on all of this. First I’m going through Barack Obama’s speech earlier today to pick out what seems important. Blanket observation: what’s been announced looks like a strategy, not just a bunch of moves, and it looks different, in several important ways, from what the U.S. has done until now in Afghanistan. Off we go.

“Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that Al Qaida is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan.”

The language here seems carefully chosen. The suggestion is that the situation in Pakistan is strategically comparable to the situation in Afghanistan in, say, August 2001: Pakistan is an inevitable theatre of operations, of some sort, for any U.S. government that wants to protect “the United States homeland.” The argument is that inaction now would be culpably negligent.

“For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world. But this is not simply an American problem, far from it. It is, instead, international security challenge of the highest order. Terrorist attacks in London, in Bali were tied to Al Qaida and its allies in Pakistan…. If there is a major attack on an Asian, European, or African city it, too, is likely to have ties to Al Qaida leadership in Pakistan. The safety of people around the world is at stake.”

This piles on the point made earlier, generalizes the threat — not just the U.S. homeland is threatened, Mr. and Mrs. World, but yours too — and, again, shifts the focus several dozen kilometres eastward, to the other side of the notional Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

“And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same. We will defeat you.”

ALSO BY INKLESS WELLS: Obama and Afghanistan/Pakistan Part II, Part III, Part IV
ALSO AT MACLEANS.CA: An exclusive photo gallery from Pakistan’s dangerous Swat Valley

A contradiction of Stephen Harper’s assertion that the insurgents can’t be defeated? Not entirely, I think. Harper should have said, as he usually does, that they can’t be defeated militarily; and Obama isn’t claiming that the defeat he plans will be only military in nature. As we see a moment later when he says he wants to “enhance the military, governance, and economic capacity” of Afghanistan.

“It’s important for the American people to understand that Pakistan needs our help in going after Al Qaida. This is no simple task. The tribal regions are vast, they are rugged, and they are often ungoverned. And that’s why we must focus on military assistance on the tools, training, and support that Pakistan needs to root out the terrorists”

There is no significant difference between this statement and comments Stéphane Dion made a year ago that led his opponents and others to mock him.

“And after years of mixed results, we will not and cannot provide a blank check. Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out Al Qaida and the violent extremists within its borders. We will insist that action be taken, one way or another, when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets.”

News reports lately have featured Pakistani complaints that, when the Americans spot a target in Pakistan, they destroy it themselves instead of notifying Pakistani authorities. Here the president says he is willing to notify the authorities but that they must then step up and handle the problem. If they don’t, it’s back to Predator drones and special-ops action.

“Now a campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone.”

See the bit about purely military victory being impossible, above.

“Later this spring, we will deploy approximately 4,000 U.S. troops to train Afghan security forces… and we will seek additional trainers from our NATO allies to ensure that every Afghan unit has a coalition partner.”

On my two trips to Afghanistan I visited the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, CSTC-A or “See Sticka,” where most training of Afghan security forces is coordinated. There are about 1,000 soldiers there with operational control over 6,000 more. The training boost that Obama just announced, and the non-U.S. increase to training forces he plans to go get, seems aimed at roughly doubling the military training capability in Afghanistan.

“I’m ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground.”

Here, I think it’s accurate to say — and if I’m wrong, I’d welcome being corrected by specialists — that Canada is ahead of the U.S. on this front. The scale of our “civilian surge” has been small compared to what Obama is about to orchestrate, if he’s as good as his word, but it started a year ago and it has already changed the complexion of Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the corruption that causes Afghans to lose faith in their own leaders. Instead, we will seek a new compact with the Afghan government to crack down on corrupt behavior and sets clear benchmarks, clear metrics for international assistance so that it’s used to provide for the needs of the Afghan people.”

This strikes me as genuinely new, though its significance will depend a lot on how it’s implemented: instead of bland “support” for the Afghan government, far more pressing demands that the Afghan authorities live up to their citizens’ and the rest of the world’s legitimate expectations. Active corruption, and complacency about that corruption, has been toxic to democratic legitimacy in Afghanistan. I don’t know whether anyone can fix that, but Obama seems to want to try.

“…there will also be no peace without reconciliation among former enemies. Now, I have no illusion that this will be easy. In Iraq, we had success in reaching out to former adversaries to isolate and target Al Qaida in Iraq. We must pursue a similar process in Afghanistan while understanding that it is a very different country. There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated. But there are also those who’ve taken up arms because of coercion or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course. That’s why we will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province.”

To understate, this is tricky, and how it’s executed can make the difference between success and far greater problems than before. The idea of “reconciliation” scared the daylights out of Canadian and other coalition authorities I met in Kandahar in December. They fear the stew of tribal allegiances, mercenary profit motives, grudges and opportunism in the South is far too toxic to act as a setting for any Western attempt to play favourites. Much will depend on whether Obama means it when he “understands” that Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, and whether the “reconciliation process in every province” will pay enough attention to each province’s particularities.

ALSO BY INKLESS WELLS: Obama and Afghanistan/Pakistan Part II, Part III, Part IV
ALSO AT MACLEANS.CA: An exclusive photo gallery from Pakistan’s dangerous Swat Valley

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