Some call it the “ink blot” strategy. Some call it “oil spot.”(http://www.metimes.com/International/2009/02/24/obama_balks_at_afghan_nation-building_plan_costs/5168/) Either way, it points to part of President Obama’s new “comprehensive strategy” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he announced last week. It is premised on focusing on garnering loyalty from local people. When a Taliban attack occurs, the military fights just to retake control (rather than pursue insurgents), then breaks up into smaller units and relocates to and occupies surrounding towns, all the while protecting the people and earning their trust. The purpose is to weaken loyalty to and fear of Taliban militants and al-Qaeda jihadists. Coupled with this counterinsurgency tactic is the plan to buy off Taliban moderates, either financially or politically. Sound familiar? It echoes what the Bush administration did during the 2007 surge in Iraq.
But reducing Obama’s new Afghanistan and Pakistan policy to a Bush redux would be a mistake. First, his emphasis on Central Asia departs from the previous administration. Bush put much more of his effort into Iraq than Afghanistan. Second, Obama’s new strategy links Afghanistan and Pakistan.(http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1888257,00.html) In his policy announcement Obama said, “The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan. In the nearly eight years since 9/11, al-Qaeda and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier. This almost certainly includes al-Qaeda’s leadership: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. They have used this mountainous terrain as a safe-haven to hide, train terrorists, communicate with followers, plot attacks, and send fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world.” Many believe Bush’s policy toward the region was piecemeal and uncoordinated.
Third, Obama is sending 21,000 new troops, 4,000 of them to train Afghan forces, which many observers say are under-skilled, under-equipped, and too few in number to address the huge security issues they face. Obama hopes to build an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 by 2011. Michael O’Hanlon, a prominent military strategist at Brookings Institution, believes Afghan forces should be at least double this. (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102450312). Also, Obama got bipartisan support for committing $1.5 billion a year for five years to non-military development endeavors and “flexible benchmarks” to hold Afghanistan and Pakistan accountable for achieving political, economic, social, and security goals, such as routing al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents from the northern and western mountains contiguous to Afghanistan.
What is also remarkable about Obama’s strategy is that he has initiated a “regional contact group” that includes Iran. Indeed, as Obama announced his Afghanistan/Pakistan plan, US diplomats were sitting at a table in Moscow with several countries, including Iran, discussing how to address security in Afghanistan. Iran is an enemy of the Taliban and suffers from drug trafficking out of Afghanistan. Obama is capitalizing on shared interests with Iran. As one reporter put it, (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article5993094.ece) “In stark contrast to President George W. Bush, who named Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil,’ Obama believes the way forward is through diplomatic initiatives on common concerns such as Afghanistan.”
The challenge is great not only militarily but particularly politically for the US and the 40-plus other nations working there. Last year was the most violent year in Afghanistan since the US invaded it in October 2001. And many observers believe that this American resurgence will lead to even more violence and death, especially among civilians. Warlords, Taliban, and al-Qaeda are intransigent and a threat to Afghanistan’s security and prosperity. If you want to get a concise glimpse of the political challenge, see the Fund for Peace’s “Failed States” website. (http://www.fundforpeace.org/web/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=294&Itemid=464) Of the 177 countries it monitors, Afghanistan is easily in the top 10 worst states in terms of its political leadership, military, police, judiciary, and civil service. And Pakistan (http://www.fundforpeace.org/web/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=292&Itemid=452) isn’t far ahead of the pack of failed states.
Let’s keep praying for the political, social, and economic development of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that the US and its allies might be agents for this kind of change. But also, let’s pray for the protection of Afghanis and Pakistanis as the threat of more violence looms on the horizon.
Bret Kincaid is associate professor of political science at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA.