Afghanistan: Administration Testifies on Hill

As the first of the 30,000 new U.S. troops prepare to deploy within two to three weeks, debate at home continues over President Obama‘s new Afghan strategy. Notably, Secretary Clinton, Secretary Gates, and Admiral Mullen testified before Congress yesterday on the new Afghan strategy and will continue their testimony today.

Juan Cole relays reactions to Obama’s Afghan strategy from the region. In short, Kabul is content, the Taliban are indignant, the Indians are satisfied, the Russians are concerned about heroin and religious radicalism, and Pakistan wants greater military coordination. The Christian Science Monitor provides a more detailed reaction of Afghan leaders, with mixed reviews centered around the timeline for withdrawal.

Citing Admiral Mullen’s emphasis on governance during his testimony, Patrick Barry of Democracy Arsenal questions what will the Obama administration do when governance does not improve after several months. In a second post, Barry urges the U.S. to consider how to use incentives to create leverage in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as opposed overly relying on coercion and conditions. However, former Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald E. Neumann warns that while Afghanistan needs “more efficient, more honest government,” the United States must be “sensitive” about how hard it pushes President Karzai.

Ahmed Rashid despairs of any optimism that the Karzai government will gain legitimacy, fight corruption, and build competence. Among other concerns, Rashid urges reform in “the US aid and development process itself, which is rife with waste, corruption, and mismanagement.” Clare Lockhart mirrors this call for reform of the aid system “so that it no longer undermines the very institutions it claims to support.” Ultimately, Lockhart believes “lasting security in Afghanistan will be provided when Afghans can govern themselves” and commends President Obama’s speech that “balances nurturing Afghan governance at all levels with a tough stance on accountability.”

Supporters of the timeline for withdrawal argue the measure will increase leverage to push for Afghan reform. Max Fisher explores the argument that the Taliban will simply wait for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan, admitting “both sides have a case”. He quotes President Obama, “the whole point is to create Afghan capacity in terms of governance and security so that you have a more healthy body politic. But the time the Taliban decide, OK, the U.S. is starting to draw down, they will find that they will have an Afghan society that is more equipped to repulse their violence.”

Richard Just identifies a seeming inconsistency in President Obama’s speech, in which he both seemed to shy away from nation-building while also focusing on America’s role in democracy promotion. According to Just, “you either believe that America’s foreign policy ought to be closely tied to the promotion of rights and freedoms outside our borders, or you don’t.” Peter Roff contends that while Afghanistan has defeated empires before, the United States  is not an empire because we are fighting “on behalf of ideals like freedom and self-government.” However, The Los Angeles Times editorial staff wonders whether Obama’s claim that the U.S. seeks to spread freedom and not occupy countries will be lost on the Afghans who are “witnessing yet another wave of foreign soldiers streaming into their country.”

Building on Just’s article, John Judis suggests Obama “soft-pedaled nation-building and human rights” because the administration has lowered its expectations in Afghanistan and has “resigned itself to a messy, pre-modern pre-democratic, partially-Tribal, partially Islamic fundamentalist Afghanistan in which, nonetheless, Al Qaeda does not have a refuge.”

Backing up this view, Graham E. Fuller, former CIA station chief in Kabul, despairs of the strategy’s chances of  success and predicts “the Taliban will inevitably figure significantly in the governance of almost any future in Afghanistan, like it or not.” Nir Rosen casts doubt on many of the assumptions underlying the COIN strategy in Afghanistan and argues for a further reconsideration of American expectations. Chief among the assumptions, he rejects the notion that “the failure to create a unified, centralized state in Afghanistan will lead to Al Qaeda’s return.” Rosen also contends that building up the Afghan police will do little good without an effective justice system, a viewpoint also shared by The Daily Star‘s editorial staff. They argue “the way forward lies in building a judiciary, the backbone of an effective state.”

Richard Miniter and Dr. Sebastian Gorka offer lessons from the success of the Al Anbar Awakening in Iraq. They argue the U.S. must look beyond national borders to tribal boundaries, rely more heavily on the local knowledge of the tribes, and provide assistance to the tribes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Matthew Yglesias contends, “American troops aren’t in Afghanistan in order to help Afghan women […] but Afghan women are nonetheless beneficiaries of the mission.”

Finally, Nathan Freier of the Center for Strategic and International Studies considers the lessons of the Afghanistan war for the future of American foreign policy. He reasons,  “if threats of disorder – state failure, insurgency, civil war, terrorism, consequential crime – are today as (if not more) consequential than are threats from a functioning but unfavorable order – aggressive regional powers – and if transformational intervention against the worst disorder is now always assumed to be a decades-long enterprise, then intellectual pursuit of more modest alternatives is called for.”