December 17, 2010 | WebMemo on International Conflicts
The White House review on Afghanistan released Thursday demonstrates that the 30,000 additional U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan this year are beginning to make a difference in the direction of the war.
In order to build on these tentative gains, the Administration should take a stronger leadership role in driving political reconciliation inside Afghanistan, intensify efforts to work with Pakistan in denying Taliban sanctuary on its side of the border, and refrain from discussing troop deadlines, which undermines the overall strategy.
Turning Military Gains into Political Success
The review provides a candid assessment of where U.S. efforts stand in the war just three months after the last of the 30,000 additional American troops arrived in theater. Administration officials have said the review is unlikely to prompt any major policy changes in the short run, which means President Barack Obama is willing to give the counterinsurgency strategy more time.
At the NATO summit in Lisbon last month, President Obama shifted the focus of U.S. strategy to an emphasis on 2014 as the end date for combat operations. While he continues to call for some U.S. forces to be withdrawn starting in July 2011, Obama has left himself wiggle room by saying that the “pace and scope” of that withdrawal is still undecided.
Progress on the battlefield has not yet translated into success for civilian government, which means the overall counterinsurgency strategy is still being tested. While the U.S. and coalition forces have made clear military progress in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where most of the new U.S. troops have been deployed, it remains to be seen whether local civilian government can fill in behind and sustain itself over time. Given that fighting inevitably slows in the winter months in Afghanistan, some of the gains may be partially attributable to a conscious temporary retreat by the Taliban.
The sudden death this week of Senior Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) Richard Holbrooke has sparked uncertainty over the future of the civilian/political strategy in Afghanistan. It is essential that the Obama Administration quickly identify a notable individual with regional experience and political influence to succeed Holbrooke. Some have suggested that the SRAP position be disbanded or downgraded, but that would be a mistake. The terrorism problem involves both Afghanistan and Pakistan; thus it is necessary to have a high-level Washington-based official who can shuttle between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Setbacks for al-Qaeda
The review also takes note of progress against al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan’s tribal areas thanks to an intensified drone missile campaign. President Obama indicated that it will take time to “ultimately defeat al-Qaeda” but pledged to pursue the terrorist organization relentlessly until it is eventually dismantled. The U.S. is also focusing on al-Qaeda affiliates in places like Yemen and Somalia, but senior Administration officials have made clear that the most significant al-Qaeda threat continues to emanate from the borderlands of Pakistan.
While the review demonstrates that the U.S. is in a better position today than it was a year ago to meet its objectives in Afghanistan, there is a long way to go. To consolidate the recent security gains in Afghanistan and turn the tide on the terrorist threat that plagues both Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Administration should:
Double Down on Diplomacy
The Afghanistan strategy is on the right track, and the recent security gains are encouraging. The Administration should now double down on efforts to bolster political reconciliation inside Afghanistan and strengthen regional diplomacy to bring Afghanistan’s neighbors in alignment with a serious reconciliation process.
Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center and James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.