January 25, 2011

Nathaniel Fick on the State of the Union and Afghanistan

On Afghanistan, the president continues to send mixed messages. Two sentences apart, he reiterated the conflicting pledges he made at West Point in announcing his decision thirteen months ago to send more troops: that "we will begin to bring our troops home" in July 2011, and that "we will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat" al Qaeda.

The problem with this message is that many Americans hear "morass" while our enemies hear "surrender." The irony of this message is that it comes at a time when the trajectory and momentum of the Afghan campaign may be turning in our favor, and when 2014 has become the new 2011.

Progress at the tactical and operational levels is real, especially in killing and capturing Taliban leaders and in training Afghan security forces. Yet two strategic Achilles heels remain: poor Afghan governance and Pakistani complicity with the insurgency.

Commanders on the ground assume that neither Afghan President Hamid Karzai's behavior nor Pakistan's policy toward its sanctuaries will change in 2011. Till now, pressuring Karzai and the Pakistani leadership, whether in public or private, has yielded little in the way of concrete results, but few alternatives to these harangues have existed. That is changing.

Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster's Task Force Shafafiyat (Dari for "transparency") is building and will put in place an integrated plan to tackle corruption in the Afghan government, largely circumventing individual leaders. Lieut. Gen. Bill Caldwell's Herculean effort to train the Afghan military aims to "thicken" Afghan forces and deny sanctuaries within Afghanistan, slowly changing the perception of the fight among Afghans from what is essentially a civil conflict to a war against   invaders trained by the Pakistani secret service.

But the most pivotal changes that have gone largely unnoticed are the low-key political victories achieved in recent weeks by President Obama and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Obama and Rasmussen, working separately, have effectively moved the planned troop withdrawal date to "2014+". In Washington, the American political system has digested without a murmur the news that the troop withdrawals of 2011 will be far less significant than the troops that remain on the ground. What's more, Obama has essentially won approval for high troop numbers through the 2012 election.

Because of what Obama and Rasmussen have accomplished, time has been put back on the clock in Afghanistan, and word has spread through the region rapidly.  General David Petraeus recently told the National Journal's James Kitfield, "I was in a remote Afghan village, and even there the elders had all gotten the message about 2014. To them, it meant the international community pledging to stay with them in this tough fight."

Having chosen to pay the price in blood, treasure, and popularity, the president should be furthering the illusion of permanence, not undermining it.