- Thomas Ruttig: Real reconciliation in Afghanistan
- Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman: Unanswered questions in Obama's Afghanistan policy
- Brian Katulis: The U.S. still doesn't know what it wants to get done in Afghanistan
- Gerard Russell: Afghanistan still needs a long-term commitment
- Michael Waltz: Obama's dangerous message
- Masood Aziz: Are we making the same mistakes again in Afghanistan?
- Douglas A. Ollivant: In Afghanistan, huge challenges remain
Unanswered questions in Obama's Afghanistan policy
President Obama has set the right strategic direction for U.S. policy in Afghanistan going forward, officially beginning a transfer to Afghan control of security and a realignment in U.S. strategy. While the pace of withdrawal could have been more significant than the declared 10,000 troops this year, with 23,000 to follow by September 2012, it clearly signaled the initial trajectory of a military drawdown. The President also strongly highlighted aspects of the political, diplomatic and economic strategy that American efforts in Afghanistan must be oriented around moving forward. This includes a political settlement to the conflict, a reduction of Afghan dependency on international aid, and reducing extremism in Pakistan.
Despite these rhetorical acknowledgements, much of the detail available in the president's speech was focused on troop numbers and military schedules, and many questions remain unanswered. For all the administration's claims of progress to date, the groundwork for these other priorities is still only in the early stages, and a shift in strategy is required to make that happen.
For too long, the international military effort in Afghanistan, which has received the overwhelming bulk of the resources and attention from U.S. policymakers, has superseded these key lines of efforts. More worryingly, the degree to which military operations will be aligned with the current stated objective of a political settlement to the conflict remains unclear even after the president's speech -- although some administration officials indicate that a reorientation in operational priorities will now take place. The administration has interpreted the raids and targeted operations that have created a high rate of deaths or captures of mid-level Taliban commanders as a successful tool for pressuring the insurgents to the negotiating table. But if this process is not more clearly linked to the political track to allow those commanders who might want to join a peace process the time and space to show their followers that negotiations offer better prospects and a respite from ISAF attacks, it is not clear that we will have many reliable interlocutors with whom to negotiate.
Further lacking at this point are the details of the political reforms necessary to make such a political settlement possible, and more information on how the U.S. plans to use its levers of influence -- most critically, an eventual strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan and our considerable support to the Karzai government -- to push for action. While the administration is right to affirm the need for a lead Afghan role in this process, the current Afghan government remains an exclusive and highly centralized system with few incentives to offer those on the outside short of presidential patronage. In fact, the parliament -- the one body that has served as a potential domestic check on the executive and a means of bringing opposition voices into government -- is under attack as a Karzai-appointed special electoral court announced today that nearly a quarter of the winners of last fall's highly contested election were invalid, raising the prospects of a constitutional crisis as parliament and the executive dispute the court's authority to alter the election results.
President Obama has set a direction for U.S. policy. The departments and agencies of the U.S. government must now work together to back up his remarks with policies and plans that can make political settlement and civilian transition in Afghanistan a reality.
Caroline Wadhams is Senior Fellow and Colin Cookman is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress.