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Unanswered Questions on Afghanistan and Pakistan Policy

SOURCE: AP/Khalid Tanveer

Pakistan army soldiers take part in an exercise in Muzzafargarh near Multan, Pakistan where, along with other security forces, they are engaged with Taliban and al-Qaida militants in Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghanistan border.

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Video: Determining Success in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The Obama administration last week released its latest strategy paper for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a document that provides more details on what it is planning for the two countries. This paper is the most concrete explication of what applying the Obama administration’s “smart power” national security approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan will look like—the full use of all national security tools at America’s disposal. But it leaves three key questions unanswered:

1. What is the end state that the United States seeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

2. What is U.S. policy on dealing with both countries’ internal power struggles?

3. What role do countries in the region such as India and Iran play?

Without answering these questions, the Obama administration continues to skirt central issues such as the broader regional diplomatic approaches that could help advance stability in South Asia, and targeted efforts to improve governance in Pakistan, which is not adequately addressed in the new strategy document. The United States should ultimately lay out practical end goals with realistic timeframes and expected costs—something this latest document does not do.

Rolled out in advance of this week’s conference on Afghanistan in London, the overall strategy is comprehensive, with each individual policy initiative described fairly clearly and linked together as an integrated package. The most notable feature of the new strategy document is that it details specific funds and staffing structures to support Afghan leaders’ plans to deal with insurgents such as the Taliban. How this reintegration effort is implemented—who is calling the shots and how resources are used—is vital. The strategy makes clear that the United States would support Afghan-led efforts to reintegrate Taliban “who renounce Al Qaeda, cease violence, and agree to participate in the constitutional process.” But it is conceivable that some Afghan leaders might disagree with U.S. officials on who fits into that category—such disputes have happened with Iraqi leaders in recent years.

Despite all of the hard work that has gone into this document, the latest strategy falls short in three important ways, and the Obama administration should look closely at these three questions as it continues to develop its strategy.

1. How does it end?

One disconcerting aspect of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan and Pakistan policy is that it has not clearly defined the end state it is seeking to achieve in both countries. President Obama and his team have been crystal clear and consistent on the effects it wants to achieve: “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” But they haven’t precisely defined what they intend to achieve in terms of end states in both countries in order to bring the desired effect on Al Qaeda.

CAP President and CEO John Podesta pointed out this central issue in the first question he asked Ambassador Richard Holbrooke in the first public event Holbrooke and his team held last summer. Noting that the very narrow goal of defeating Al Qaeda seems to require a broad-based strategy to develop capacity, Podesta asked, “How do you define clear objectives of what you’re trying to succeed as outputs with the inputs that you just talked about? How do you measure success against that broader array of problems and inputs?”

After a series of follow-up questions, Holbrooke said, “The specific goal you ask, John—is really—it’s really hard for me to address in specific terms. But I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the simplest sense … we’ll know it when we see it.”

Reading this latest strategy from the Obama administration, it seems to me that the Obama administration’s Afghanistan and Pakistan policy is still in vague “we’ll know it when we see it” territory for measuring progress. Although I’m told by friends in the Obama administration that there has been detailed work on the metrics for progress, the strategy paper offers an uneven set of milestones on various policy initiatives, and many of these milestones are actually inputs rather than results (“nearly 1,000 civilian experts deployed by early 2010”) or vaguely defined (“expansion of cold storage, food processing, and related infrastructure to support export of food products to neighboring countries”). In reading this strategy document, one might infer that this summer will be a transition period given the dates attached to many of the milestones. But it is not clear what will happen in the summer of 2011 if progress is not achieved.

There are two problems with this vagueness about the end state in Afghanistan and Pakistan. First, the lack of a clearly defined end state opens the door to the possibility of a slippery slope of open-ended commitments in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and this could lead to a military and financial quagmire. If we don’t know precisely what type of institutions the United States would like to leave behind to achieve its goal of defeating Al Qaeda, how do we know when the job is done?

I joined Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew on a visit in November to a camp in Indiana providing training to personnel heading out as part of the civilian surge in Afghanistan. Some of the people heading out to Afghanistan to work on economic development and governance had the same question—when do we know when our job is done? It is perhaps a fair question—what we are trying to do is organic and will need to be adapted, so the clear end state may not be readily available, but more clarity on the desired end state is warranted considering that we are spending billions and putting lives at risk.

The second problem about the lack of clarity on the end state extends beyond these two countries and raises a possible logical inconsistency in America’s global approach to tackling terrorist groups. If one infers from the emerging U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan that a comprehensive institution-strengthening, nation-building-like approach—even if we are uncomfortable in calling it nation building—is central to defeating Al Qaeda in these two countries, then what does it say about what we should do in places like Somalia and Yemen, two other trouble spots where terror networks operate?

The main question this latest Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy fails to answer is: What is it precisely that we want to leave behind in those countries? How do we know when the job is done? I know people in the Obama administration have some answers to these questions. Whether different departments and agencies agree on the end state remains an open question, as the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran reported last month.

2. What is U.S. policy on dealing with both countries’ internal power struggles?

The second shortcoming with the Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy paper is that it is mostly silent about both countries’ legislative bodies and elections. Afghanistan’s parliament is conspicuously absent in the “strengthening Afghan governance” section. The paper offers detailed ideas on supporting various national ministries, anticorruption bodies, and various institutions at the subnational level, but there is scant mention of the parliament, which is actually currently playing an important oversight role in the debate with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s proposed cabinet nominees.

Given that the 2009 presidential and provincial elections in Afghanistan were an exercise that impeded progress, one worrisome omission from this strategy is any detailed mention of how the United States is going to approach the upcoming parliamentary elections now tentatively scheduled for September, which doesn’t leave much time to reform election institutions and processes. The strategy paper offers a brief mention of these elections, but recent discussions and meetings I’ve had with the Obama administration have left me concerned about the potential lack of a clear policy on how to deal with these upcoming elections.

The comprehensive focus on enhancing Afghanistan’s subnational governance found in the paper is noteworthy and important—and here, like the efforts to implement reintegration programs, the devil will be in the details of implementation and how deftly the civilian surge contingents can work with Afghan partners and military counterparts to help these efforts achieve results. One question at this level is what role the provincial councils elected last August might play—as of now, these councils lack power compared to the governors, who are appointed by President Karzai. Curiously, the Pakistan sections offer little insight on what might be done to help Pakistan address its considerable governance challenges.

3. What role does the United States envision for other regional actors such as India and Iran?

A third weakness in the strategy paper is what it doesn’t say about the broader region—particularly India and Iran. The document makes no mention of Iran, even though it is an economic and political player in the country—Iran tops the list of countries that have good relations with Afghanistan, according to a recent public opinion poll of Afghan citizens conducted by the International Republican Institute.

India is a vital strategic country in the region, and the paper does mention India as central to reinvigorated regional diplomacy. But the paper doesn’t spell out how India fits into this regional picture and, importantly, what the Obama administration is attempting to do to alter Pakistan’s threat perceptions and strategic calculations vis-à-vis India. The Obama administration has not neglected India—maintaining strong bilateral ties is a key part of its global strategy—but it doesn’t seem to have figured out how that bilateral relationship fits into the broader regional picture.

The Obama administration has taken a step forward by offering more details about what it is doing in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it still hasn’t answered the ultimate question of what end state it seeks to achieve in both countries. The unanswered questions about how it will deal with the upcoming Afghan elections and implement its programs in both Afghanistan and Pakistan while navigating both countries’ treacherous internal politics, as well as the broader “regional” component of its stabilization strategy, means that the Obama administration still has much work to do to develop a workable strategy.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

Video: Determining Success in Afghanistan and Pakistan

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