President Barack Obama's sudden appearance in Afghanistan on May 1, a calculated attempt to display his administration's foreign-policy expertise and showcase his plan for ending U.S. involvement in that country's war, was overshadowed by another drama in Beijing, the U.S. Embassy's fumbling of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. The global attention directed on the Chen affair showed that U.S. presidents sometimes have less power than they might presume to dominate the news. Obama and his advisors are similarly assuming that they will have the power to steer Afghanistan toward the slimmed-down objectives that remain for the U.S. campaign there. That assumption may be just as flimsy.
Obama and his advisors believe that a long-term public commitment to Afghanistan, combined with a steady drawdown of U.S. troops, will keep Afghan powerbrokers on their side, convince the Taliban and Pakistan to cooperate, and, perhaps most importantly, show the U.S. public that the troops are on their way home. What remains to be seen is whether Obama and his team will have as much long-term influence over events in the region as they assume they will. There are some reasons to expect that they won't. If that's the case, Afghanistan will remain a burden on the next administration and the U.S. Army for many more years.
While in Afghanistan, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a strategic partnership agreement, which outlines a plan for cooperation through 2024. Although vague and recognizing that future U.S. congresses and policymakers will make their own decisions regarding Afghanistan, the agreement, combined with a commitment of support from NATO at its upcoming summit in Chicago, may influence the calculations of allies and adversaries alike. In addition, U.S. policymakers are haunted by the chaos that descended on Afghanistan after the United States walked away in 1990 in the wake of the mujahedeen triumph over the Soviet army. Obama and his team apparently assume that if they do the opposite, they will also get an opposite, and more favorable, result.
In his speech at Bagram Air Base, Obama attempted to explain how modest, and therefore feasible, his objectives are for a country so famous at spoiling the designs of outsiders. Obama said, "Our goal is not to build a country in America's image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars, and most importantly, many more American lives. Our goal is to destroy al Qaeda, and we are on a path to do exactly that." But sustaining this seemingly modest objective within Afghanistan's territory would seem to require a functional Afghan national government over the long term. A strong central government is a somewhat alien concept to Afghan history and U.S. plans based on such an assumption may prove fragile.
The success of the agreement is also entirely dependent on the quality of the relationships between the U.S. and Afghan leaders over the next decade. The recent trend in this regard is not encouraging. Karzai's behavior over the past few years reveals a man whose political survival seems dependent on ever-increasing anti-Americanism. Karzai's replacement, assuming the country can find one not objectionable to its ethnic factions, will very likely face the same internal pressure Karzai feels. The United States has other functioning transactional relationships with leaders from viscerally anti-American societies. But Afghanistan is now a higher visibility case inside the United States. The U.S. public and Congress, which will be asked to finance substantial assistance to an erratic and avowedly anti-American leader, may find their patience wearing thin in the years ahead. If Afghanistan's central government weakens or becomes too difficult to support, the strategic framework agreement's value will have expired. At that point, the United States will need a backup plan.
Standing up Afghan security forces has proven to be a tremendous challenge for NATO and the U.S. military. The Pentagon's latest semi-annual report on the Afghan army and national police describes both their achievements and ongoing struggles. Although the size of the Afghan army and national police has expanded rapidly (now numbering over 344,000), quality remains uneven and is especially dodgy among the police. Afghan security forces are responsible for leading security operations for half of Afghanistan's population. But armies and police forces require institutional support. Due to corruption and a lack of trained capacity, Afghanistan's government is far from being able to sustain its security forces on its own.
The long-term burden of keeping the Afghan army and police on their feet will fall most heavily on the U.S. Army (the Marine Corps is moving on to the Pacific). The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan reminded policymakers and planners that a successful exit can happen only as fast as friendly indigenous forces are in place to provide security. Because of its poverty, illiteracy, and ethnic divisions, Afghanistan has been an especially tough mission for the Army's trainers and advisers. The murder of at least 78 coalition trainers since 2007 by their Afghan students has undermined public support for the campaign. The strategic partnership agreement is recognition that this work will not be complete by the end of 2014, even if the rest of NATO's combat troops are gone by that time. The U.S. Army's obligation to security-force assistance, not only in Afghanistan but elsewhere in the world, will remain large for many years.
At Bagram, Obama once again invited Pakistan to play a positive role in helping Afghanistan achieve stable sovereignty. His plea will again almost certainly fall on deaf ears in Islamabad. As the Pentagon's report mentioned countless times, the existence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan and the support by Pakistani intelligence of groups like the Haqqani network mean there is no foreseeable end to Afghanistan's war. The report notes that violence has declined for several years. But we have no way of knowing whether the Taliban are merely waiting in their sanctuaries for NATO's departure in 2014 before reaccelerating their military operations.
As predicted, the U.S. raid a year ago on Osama bin Laden's compound resulted in the collapse of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. After a mistaken cross-border clash in November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, little remains; Pakistan has closed the NATO supply lines into Afghanistan while the United States has suspended its aid to the Pakistani military. Talks to repair the relationship failed this week.
Leaders in both the Bush and Obama administrations have been fully aware of Pakistan's support for the Taliban and its preference for a weak Afghanistan. Yet these policymakers have assumed that they could achieve their goals in spite of these facts. The open-ended slog in Afghanistan reveals the flaw in these assumptions.
Obama's plan to withdraw U.S. combat troops by 2014 may be a nod to the intractable nature of both Afghan culture and Pakistan's unflinching obstinacy regarding Afghan sovereignty. If Obama is serious about destroying al Qaeda, the Abbottabad raid showed that U.S. military power will continue to be required. Diplomacy and aid, especially to very dubious partners like Pakistan, will be insufficient and often unwarranted.
Obama and his successors would be wise to double-check their assumptions regarding their relationships with Afghanistan's future leaders, the stability of its national government, and the fragility of its security forces. If any of those assumptions collapses, there won't be much left of the new strategic partnership agreement. If the U.S. government still wants to keep al Qaeda dead, it will then need a whole new plan.