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Does Obama Have a Clear Plan for Afghanistan?

5 years ago
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If someone were to tell you they wanted to spend $100 billion a year on a project but couldn't fully describe its goal, you'd probably think twice before saying, go for it. But that's what President Barack Obama is doing with the war in Afghanistan -- according to an Obama-friendly think tank.

This week, as Obama meets in Washington with Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, the Center for American Progress released a study that contained a stunning conclusion. Obama administration officials, it declares, "need greater clarity of purpose in defining their end-state goals" in Afghanistan. The study notes, "The Obama administration remains vague about what progress looks like in Afghanistan and what our objectives are over the next two to five years." In non-policy-wonk terms, the administration is winging it when it comes to figuring out how to achieve long-term stability in Afghanistan, which is supposedly a goal of U.S. policy. "Building even a minimally functioning state in Afghanistan will be incredibly difficult," the report says, yet "administration officials are paying too little attention to the sustainability of the programs and Afghan state we are creating." Moreover, the report notes, the Obama administration "has not yet outlined a clear plan for transferring control to the Afghan state or sufficiently prioritized the reforms needed to ensure that it can one day stand on its own."

Bottom-line: The Obama crew has devoted plenty of thought to the military strategy and beefing up Afghan security forces, but not enough to how to make Afghanistan work as a nation. And success depends upon both.

The Center for American Progress is a liberal outfit headed by John Podesta, who led Obama's presidential transition. So if CAP is expressing such sharp concerns about the administration's approach in Afghanistan, it's particularly troubling. And accusing Obama of expending much money and many lives for a war without clearly determining what must be done to make Afghanistan a functioning state is a serious charge.

One of the center's fellows, Brian Katulis, has been trying -- without success -- to get information out of the administration on this front. He writes,
Nearly nine years into the war, we lack clear answers to two fundamental questions: How does this war end? What is the desired sustainable end state in Afghanistan? . . .

During the past month, I asked Obama administration officials and Afghan government representatives direct questions such as the estimated cost to completion for Afghanistan, general estimates on how many Afghan government personnel will be needed to fill the various levels of Afghan institutions to make them viable, and how progress will be measured. Instead of clear answers, I usually heard general restatements of the basic principles of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine: that the United States is trying to build up Afghan governing institutions as part of an overall strategy centered on the notions of "clear, hold, and build" -- clearing areas of insurgents, holding those areas, and building institutions. For the most part, few concrete details have been offered -- like a religious creed, COIN mantras were repeated, but vague answers to the crucial implementation questions on institution-building remain the norm, which is a dangerous proposition.

In the past week, I, too, have taken a stab at prying details out of the administration. During a press briefing with Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, and Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, a special assistant to Obama for Afghanistan and Pakistan, I asked about the report's conclusion that the administration has presented no well-defined end-state goal for Afghanistan. Rhodes replied:
The president has been very clear and consistent in his goal. The focus of our Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its capacity to threaten the United States or our allies in the future. . . . In service of that goal, we believe it's important to, again, break the momentum of the Taliban and to increase Afghanistan's capacity to provide for its own security and to improve governance for the Afghan people. . . . We're focused on developing our relationships and supporting the capacity of the Afghan government at a number of levels. Obviously we're working directly with President Karzai, as the head of state of Afghanistan, and the team of ministers at the national level that cover a very important number of sectors of the Afghan government.

That was a bit on the vague side. And when I asked the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, about the CAP report, he said he hadn't read it. But, I queried, have Obama officials "communicated a clear idea of what the administration wants" regarding the Afghan state in the next two to five years? "We're making progress on that," he replied.

This week in Washington, administration officials have been meeting with senior representatives of the Karzai government -- which is widely regarded as corrupt and inept -- and these sessions have included discussions of what can be done to bolster governance and economic development in Afghanistan. A consultant working with the Afghan delegation tells me that progress is being made. But enough progress? After all, without a fully realized and achievable vision of an end-state in Afghanistan, it will be difficult for Obama to end -- and to justify -- the war.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.
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