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Con: Obama needs to stay course in Afghanistan

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Ilan Berman
June 27, 2009
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Should Congress require Obama to outline an exit strategy from Afghanistan by the end of this year?

What to do about Afghanistan? Ever since taking office in January, President Obama has received no shortage of advice about the proper way forward on the first front of America’s struggle against radical Islam.


Some have argued that Afghanistan is politically the same as Iraq—a war of choice in which America has little at stake, and even less idea of how to achieve victory—and counseled withdrawal.


Others have acknowledged Afghanistan’s strategic importance, while stressing that nothing more is required than simply relying on Coalition and NATO support to continue fighting an insurgency that is now in its seventh year.


Still others have suggested that lightning can in effect strike twice, and the very same “surge” strategy adopted by the Bush administration in 2007 to deal with Iraq will reap dividends in Afghanistan, as well.


To its lasting credit, the Obama administration has unequivocally chosen none of the options above. Even before it took office, it launched a comprehensive review of policy toward Afghanistan.


The result, unveiled in late March, was touted as a “stronger, smarter and more comprehensive strategy” for dealing with the former Taliban and al-Qaida stronghold than the one adopted by Obama’s predecessor. Now colloquially known as “AfPak,” that plan is notable for its embrace of two contemporary realities.


The first is a recognition that Afghanistan, in modern economic parlance, is simply “too big to fail.” “If the Afghanistan government falls to the Taliban or allows al-Qaida to go unchallenged,” President Obama has said, “that country will again be a base for terrorists.” Indeed, a collapse of the beleaguered government in Kabul and a reassertion of power by Islamist forces would be disastrous for international security, allowing Afghanistan to revert to its historic role as an incubator for radicalism and a launching pad for attacks against the West.


That is why the White House has boosted its commitment to security there, adding an extra 4,000 personnel to its initial deployment of 17,000 troops to help train and assist the Afghan army and police.


The second is an understanding that Afghanistan is, at its core, a derivative problem. Much of the instability that exists there today is a function of radicalism nurtured in neighboring Pakistan.


For years, Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence establishments have promoted Islamic radicalism across their western border, seeing it as a convenient way of acquiring “strategic depth” and a low-cost method of extending their geopolitical influence in the region.


But Pakistan’s chickens have come home to roost. A resurgent Taliban, preserved in Pakistan’s unruly Federally Administered Tribal Areas since its ouster from Afghanistan after 9/11, has expanded to challenge the very stability of the state.


U.S. military officials have warned that—unless it marshals a serious counterinsurgency strategy in short order—the government of President Asif Ali Zardari in Islamabad could fall, putting the safety and security of the country’s nuclear arsenal at risk.


That is why the Obama administration’s plan for Afghanistan focuses heavily on Pakistan as well, envisioning robust military assistance and an investment of $7.5 billion over the next five years on “schools, roads and hospitals” as a way of providing a moderate local alternative to the Taliban’s corrosive ideology.


Will this dual-track approach succeed? Only time will tell. Indeed, a number of the Administration’s “AfPak” initiatives—from its flirtation with replacements for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to its idea of installing a “CEO” for Afghan accountability—have garnered more than a little resistance in Kabul and beyond.


What is already exceedingly clear, however, is that Afghanistan has become Barack Obama’s war just as surely as Iraq was George W. Bush’s. The credibility of his administration in foreign affairs, and in the struggle against terrorism, depends upon him staying the course.


Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council. Readers may write to him at AFPC, 509 C Street NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: www.afpc.org.

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