Today's date:
Summer 2009

Obama's Afghan Moment

Zalmay Khalilzad was a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations. He is presently a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Washington—Afghanistan and Pakistan are at the very top of President Barack Obama's list of foreign and security priorities. The United States military has embraced this new emphasis, as indicated by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen's recent statement that the war in Afghanistan is now more important than the struggle in Iraq. 

The increased emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan is laudable, because what happens in these two countries is critical in determining the future of extremism and terror—a defining security challenge of our time. The outcome will depend on whether the US and its partners can successfully tackle three key issues. 

First, extremist and terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan must be eliminated. Pakistan has been ambivalent about preventing extremists from using its territory, in large part because Pakistan's security agency, Inter-services Intelligence (ISI), found the extremists to be useful tools in dealing with Afghanistan and India and in attracting the interest and attention of the US. 

Now, however, the extremists are threatening Pakistan itself, which hopefully will cause the new Pakistani government to end its ambivalence and actively confront the extremists. 

The civilian part of the government, led by Asif Ali Zardari, is on board. However, the two other power centers in Pakistan—the military and the ISI—are not doing all that they can, and gaining their sustained support will not be easy. Key players in both institutions do not have the necessary confidence in the US and still see India as more of a threat than the extremists. They also believe they must hedge against US disengagement from the region and increased US-Indian cooperation—and they see continued utility in using extremists to foment unrest in neighboring countries. These ideas and concepts have deep roots in the military and ISI. 

Second, the coalition's military and economic strategy needs to be adjusted. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has reviewed the military posture. It has judged that there was a gap between ends and means, and plans to close that gap by increasing US forces in Afghanistan dramatically while also committing to significantly build up the size of the Afghan armed forces. This is a necessary move, but taken by itself it will not suffice. 

One of the key pillars of improved security in Iraq was the dramatic increase in the size of Iraqi forces, which now number one million. Afghanistan has around the same population as Iraq, living on a larger territory—yet its army and police forces combined currently number less than 150,000. Resources have to be found to train and sustain a much larger Afghan force. 

A number of other military problems remain. To name two: More efforts have to be made to avoid civilian casualties, and NATO's model of provincial deployments led by single countries, and therefore following varying rules of engagement, has caused significant confusion. The coalition needs a unified approach to dealing with insurgents. 

International civilian efforts have not been well coordinated, either. The UN Security Council has designated the UN special representative as the civilian coordinator for these efforts, but donors have proven unwilling to surrender control to this coordinator.

Third, the Afghan government and the Obama administration must form an effective partnership. Success will be difficult if the Afghan government cannot play its role. The current situation is not encouraging. Also, there is a crisis of confidence between President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration. The new administration  encouraged several potential candidates to run against him in elections. This had the unfortunate effect of pushing Karzai into the arms of those who are hostile to the West, while also fragmenting the opposition—since every member of the opposition, having been encouraged by Washington to run, assumed that he as an individual has the support of the US. 

An effective strategy for the political track is still missing. A weak Afghan government, led by a resentful Karzai whose ties to the US are strained, is a very bad, but at the moment the most likely, outcome. This can only redound to the benefit of the Taliban, even though they are otherwise unpopular among Afghans. 

The success of the administration's diplomacy will have to be measured by whether it produces a credible and agreed-upon roadmap for eliminating extremist sanctuaries in Pakistan, including ending the use of Quetta by Afghan Taliban leaders. 

Above all, President Obama must send a message to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, acknowledging their hopes and dreams and assuring them that the US will not abandon them to extremists, military dictators and warlords.