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Statement on President Obama’s Address to the Nation on Afghanistan

SOURCE: AP/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama finishes his speech about the war in Afghanistan at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY on Tuesday, December 1, 2009.

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Following months of international deliberation, the Obama administration outlined its Afghanistan strategy in a speech to the nation at West Point last night. President Barack Obama increased and deepened a U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and outlined a strategy for “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies and preventing their return to Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Now that the president has outlined his case moving forward, congressional leaders and policymakers must continue to press the administration and the government agencies responsible for carrying out this task to provide additional details of how they intend to operationalize this strategy. As we argued in a previous statement, before Congress approves additional funding it should require the Obama administration to outline a clear set of objectives with accompanying metrics and an implementation strategy that does the following:

  • Establishes a flexible timeframe for the withdrawal of U.S. troops
  • Ensures that the mission is shared with our international allies
  • Presses Pakistan to battle extremists within its borders
  • Requires good governance and internal reforms in Afghanistan
  • Plans for how the war will be funded

In addition, Congress should be asking key questions about the strategy. These include:

Nature of the training mission: Congress should press the administration on how it plans to reverse the Afghan Army and Polices Forces’ notoriously low retention rates and high absentee rates. A key component of the president’s stated goal is the transfer of security responsibilities to Afghan forces, beginning as soon as 2011. Reportedly, the Pentagon has yet to determine the exact mix of trainers and combat troops that will be deployed within the 30,000 overall figure authorized by the president.

Consistent shortfalls of trainers for the Afghan police and army have hobbled our training efforts to date. The establishment of a new NATO training command under Lieutenant General William Caldwell signals the new priority the coalition intends to give to training, but close oversight of the process by Congress will be needed to ensure that the security forces improve in both quality as well as quantity, and remain a multiethnic institution representative of the entire nation of Afghanistan.

Additionally, the administration and its NATO allies should be pressed to develop clearer plans for how the Afghan government will eventually take responsibility for the costs of its security forces, which currently depend on international donor support to sustain their current levels. Congress should also ask for criteria that will be used to decide whether troops can be withdrawn in 18 months.

Relations with local-level officials and local security initiatives: The administration has referred both publicly and privately to plans to work around the central government and deal more directly with provincial or local-level officials it has determined can deliver results. But it has given little indication on what criteria it will use in establishing such relationships or how they will be managed. While the 2001 Bonn process developed a constitution for Afghanistan that was highly centralized in the office of the presidency, there is a serious risk of exacerbating the country’s fragmentation further if the United States perpetuates a strategy of empowering local strongmen seen as capable of delivering on our short-term security needs, which it has done for much of its engagement in the country to date.

Additional reports have indicated that NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, in some degree of partnership with the Afghan ministry of interior, plans to institute a “community development initiative” that would pay local militia groups to resist the Taliban. But little information is available about how such groups would be constituted, overseen, funded, or integrated into existing security services.

Corruption, justice, and political reform: President Obama identified corruption and accountability as key issues, but he said little on the provision of justice and dispute resolution at the local or provincial level in Afghanistan, whose absence has largely fueled the Taliban insurgency. The end of “blank checks” for President Hamid Karzai is a necessary start toward addressing the corruption issue, but the conditions in which the United States might withdraw aid from the government and the follow-up steps we would take after such a step have yet to be clearly established.

Relations with Pakistan: The president was right to stress efforts to broadly engage with Pakistan to form a relationship “that is built on mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust” and to provide the resources to support its democracy and development. But he largely elided the question of what that support would look like or what the next steps will look like, with a substantial increase in aid legislation and visits by the secretary of state already behind us.

The president also failed to establish a clear distinction between the diverse array of militant groups operating in Pakistan, conflating the Afghan Taliban with the Pakistani Taliban. While the latter groups target Pakistan in their attacks, the Afghan Taliban and other militants like Lashkar-e-Taiba operate with Pakistan’s tacit support. Underlying differences remain in Pakistani and American strategic conceptions of the threat posed by these violent militants. The administration must provide more detail on what diplomatic or aid initiatives it plans to use to shift this calculation in the Pakistani establishment in regards to both India and Afghanistan.

Costs of the war: The president acknowledged the costs of the war—estimated to approach $30 billion in annual military operations—above and beyond the $60 billion already allocated to the mission for fiscal year 2010, following the dispatch of additional troops. But he has yet to provide specific details on how those costs would be paid for. The administration should be asked to find specific offsets within the defense department’s baseline budget to fund the war.

The Center for American Progress has identified nine such offsets in “Building a Military for the 21st Century,” released last December. Scaling back or eliminating these programs can provide enough savings to pay for the additional 30,000 troops and to maintain our fiscal solvency and allow a focus on what the president referred to as “nation building at home.” Such steps would bring discipline to our defense budgeting process so that American taxpayers’ money is used only for the programs that are truly necessary for our nation’s national defense.

Comparing CAP’s recommendations to the Obama speech

Prior to the Obama speech, we argued that the administration’s Afghanistan strategy should include the following five elements:

  • Establish a flexible timeframe for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
  • Ensure that the mission is shared with our international allies.
  • Press Pakistan to battle extremists within its borders.
  • Require good governance and internal reforms in Afghanistan.
  • Plan for how the war will be funded.

Below is a comparison of CAP’s recommendations with the Obama speech:

Set a timeline

CAP: A flexible timeframe for U.S. military engagement is necessary; the United States and NATO should aim to turn over security in certain areas to the Afghan Security Forces beginning in 2011 and have all Afghan forces in the lead within four years or the 12-year mark of our engagement. Throughout this time period the United States must continue to prioritize the training of Afghan National Army and Police.

Obama: President Obama outlined a similar timeframe for the transition of security to Afghan security forces—the United States will begin transferring security to Afghan National Security Forces in 2011. The pace of that transition is not fixed and will be based on assessments on the ground. Obama did not set a timeline for the departure for U.S. troops and left open the possibility of a U.S. reserve force to remain in country. President Obama will most likely deploy these troops in phases, allowing him to use further troop deployments as leverage to demand reform from the Afghan government. He will also place a high priority on training Afghan security forces.

Maintain international support

CAP: The United States cannot advance stability in Afghanistan alone; instability in Afghanistan and the region affects the globe, and all countries must take responsibility for the mission. The U.S. administration must reassure allies through consultation and concrete steps that it has a viable strategy to address their concerns, especially corrupt Afghan leadership and the sustainability of Afghan security forces.

Obama: President Obama referred to the need for a broad international coalition on Afghanistan in his speech. He discussed his administration’s outreach efforts to NATO and non-NATO countries to increase coordination and to prevent interference. Despite increasing opposition in NATO countries to any further resource and manpower commitments, the administration is reportedly seeking 10,000 additional troops from allied countries. Britain, Slovakia, and Turkey have been the principal nations to step forward thus far, but additional commitments are being sought from Germany and France, among others. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has also agreed to host an international summit in London early next year to establish clear benchmarks for reforms on the part of the Afghan government.

Push Pakistan

CAP: Pakistan has served as a partner in the hunt for Al Qaeda and has recently undertaken some effective military actions against the Pakistani Taliban. However, it has not yet taken sufficient steps to counter those militant actors within their territory that threaten regional security but do not directly target the Pakistani state, such as the Afghan Taliban. The United States should work with international allies to develop a coordinated effort to shape Pakistan’s calculations and actions to reduce the official support it extends to militant groups, while playing a behind-the-scenes role in decreasing tensions between India and Pakistan.

Obama: While President Obama did not discuss Pakistan as extensively as in the March review, he stated that a major component of the new strategy will be to create an expanded partnership with Pakistan. His administration will seek to institutionalize nonmilitary cooperation in a variety of forms while also pressing for greater action on Pakistan’s part against militant groups that threaten regional stability. The Obama administration will also attempt to assist Pakistan in overcoming political, economic, and security challenges.

Prioritize Afghan governance

CAP: The United States cannot defend an Afghan government that has little support from the Afghan people and continues to pursue policies of cronyism and self-enrichment. The international community needs to pressure its Afghan partners to follow through on recent commitments to tackle corruption and reform its own practices to provide the Afghan government with the political support necessary to confront well-entrenched figures. Ultimately the justice vacuum will only be solved when the Afghan government and its international supporters show the political will to demand and enforce its provision.

Obama: The Obama administration emphasized the importance of tackling corruption in the Afghan government. It will support efforts the Karzai government is taking to tackle this problem, and it will also begin to direct its funding outside of the Karzai government to local district and provincial authorities. But the administration did not provide indications as to how those individuals would be selected or partnered with. Obama promised to end “the era of providing a blank check” to the government but did not offer specific measures to address the justice system’s failings or on what conditions aid might be restricted.

Paying for the war

CAP: The United States currently spends more than $3.6 billion a month in Afghanistan, and the troop increases Obama announced will raise monthly costs to at least $6 billion. The United States cannot push the cost of the war to future generations, and it should not use the deficit to finance the conflict. The Obama administration should keep the topline defense budget constant and seek cuts within the Department of Defense to offset the cost of operations in Afghanistan, rather than adding to the American public’s tax or debt burden.

Obama: President Obama noted the costs of the war in his remarks, but offered few details on how he plans on paying for the increase in operations. In conversations with reporters prior to the speech, the president cautioned against a system where the decisions of a commander in chief would be subject to incremental congressional referendums through the appropriations process, and instead pledged to bring the costs of the war into the future defense budget debate.

More from CAP on Afghanistan:

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
202.478.6331 or apreiss@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
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Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

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Radio: Chelsea Kiene
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