Afghan President Hamid Karzai's meetings in Washington this week ended with no sign of a badly needed joint political strategy to buttress the U.S.-led military campaign.
In official meetings and public appearances over two days, neither Karzai nor administration officials defined what they want Afghanistan to look like in one year, or five, or 10. Nor did anyone mention benchmarks that could help chart progress or lack of progress toward that goal.
Instead, in an appearance Wednesday
with the White House press corps, Hamid Karzai and President Barack Obama lavished warm and gracious, but vague, rhetoric on each other in a new-found spirit of comity. They issued a joint statement
crammed with glowing descriptions of their renewed "commitment to the solid, broad and enduring strategic partnership ...'' and "deepening cooperation ... .''
Indeed, Obama only repeated the narrow set of goals he outlined last December when he announced the dispatch of 30,000 more troops to the battlefield. "Our shared goal,'' he said Wednesday, is "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and its extremist allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.
"And we are reviewing the progress of our shared strategy and objectives,'' he continued. "A military effort to reverse the Taliban's momentum and to strengthen Afghanistan's capacity to provide for their own security, a civilian effort to promote good governance and development, and regional cooperation, including with Pakistan, because our strategy has to succeed on both sides of the border. ''
But the 87,000 U.S. troops currently serving in the eight-year Afghan war, together with their families and the rest of Americans, might wonder where the enormous U.S. investment in Afghanistan in blood (6,774 American dead and wounded
) and in treasure (more than $51 billion), is going to end up, exactly.
As the veteran newswoman Helen Thomas plaintively demanded this week of the top Afghan commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, at a White House press briefing: "Why are we in
The U.S. military strategy is working reasonably well, said Andrew Exum. "It is the U.S. political strategy that is adrift,'' he said. Exum is a former Army officer who led infantrymen and Rangers on two combat tours in Afghanistan and is a research fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a centrist think tank in Washington.
"What are the political ends the United States and its allies are fighting to realize?'' he asked.
Just as important: What are the political ends the Afghan people want?
If the long-term American goal is to prevent al-Qaida from re-establishing a foothold in Afghanistan, it will need the support of the Afghan people -- and presumably they want something more than merely to not be a safe haven for extremists.
A joint political strategy might, for example, detail how much official corruption, at what levels of government, must be eliminated, and might establish benchmarks toward that end. It might set a certain number of corruption prosecutions and trials as a goal to show the public that their government is seriously tackling the problem (or not).
No such document has emerged.
"The political leg of the stool is missing,'' the former European Union representative to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, recently observed. Without a detailed political strategy adopted and implemented by the United States and NATO, Karzai "has little support'' for carrying out those political reforms that are essential to win the war, Vendrell said.
Is Karzai a strong enough leader to negotiate and implement such a political plan?
Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote in a cable last fall that Karzai was "not an adequate strategic partner'' on whom the United States could rely for difficult political decisions.
David W. Barno, a retired general who served for 19 months as the top U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, insists that Karzai is good enough. "He's a masterful politician,'' who will flourish in the newly warm relationship with the White House, Barno said.
"Karzai works best in a positive environment and least effectively when he's under pressure, having worked with him a lot,'' he explained.
But there is, as Obama observed Wednesday, a lot of work to be done.
For example, Karzai appoints more than 1,000 local officials, including provincial and district governors and lesser officials. Some of the selection is done through Afghanistan's Independent Directorate for Local Governance, whose members are appointed -- by Karzai.
That leaves the average Afghan without a voice even in local government, at a time when a key U.S. war-fighting goal is to make local government more able and willing to respond to local needs and grievances. Most Afghans believe the central government in Kabul is unresponsive and corrupt. Thousands of U.S. troops and civilians are working in Afghanistan today training local officials to draw up budgets and plan and manage projects.
Some analysts had expected a strong U.S. statement in support of more local elections, and perhaps even a timetable for moving in that direction.
But on this critical issue, the joint communiqué said only that Obama "commended Afghanistan's commitment to develop a plan for more effective and accounted civilian government institutions at the national and sub-national level.''
The joint statement praises the Afghan government for its "commitment to develop a plan for more effective and accountable civilian government institutions,'' but does not describe such a plan or hint at when it might be implemented.
Nor was there any guidance on another hot issue: whether and how to hold reconciliation talks with the Taliban. Karzai has endorsed the idea of negotiations with senior Taliban leaders; the U.S. has vaguely endorsed the idea of reconciliation, but insists that any Taliban first renounce violence, cut ties with al-Qaida and accept the Afghan constitution with its protection of human rights and women's equality.
Those are conditions the Taliban leadership has rejected. The Taliban also insists that an Afghan government be based on Shari'a, or Islamic, law, an idea that Karzai's government rejects.
Under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. and Afghan officials will continue to meet and perhaps they will be able to hammer out a detailed political campaign plan.
Once a plan is in place, analyst Stephen Biddle suggests that Obama start playing hardball to get it done, using the massive U.S. aid as a stick. Karzai may be reluctant to take action unpopular with his cronies. But Afghanistan is critically reliant on the United States for life support.
"Aid programs can be accelerated or slowed; training and mentoring can be expanded or contracted; logistical support can be provided or withheld for particular units at certain places and times; visas can be granted or denied; the possibilities are nearly endless," Biddle wrote
in The Washington Post. "Adroitly used,"they offer the raw material for a powerful realignment of incentives for governance in Afghanistan.''