Thursday, May 05, 2011

Is the Obama Administration turning to an exit strategy for Afghanistan?

I certainly hope so. Bob Dreyfuss reads the signals that way in US Officials: Now It's Time to End the War The Nation Online 05/04/2011: "The Obama administration is sending important signals that the killing of Osama bin Laden means that it’s time to wind down the war and talk to the Taliban."

That would be the sensible and practical thing to do. It's been obvious for a while that our exit from Afghanistan would come when US officials got tired of the endless war. A majority of the public has been tired of it for a while.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a leading "humanitarian hawk" and a former official in Hillary Clinton's State Department, writes in Escaping from Afghanistan's Mad-Max Present: What Osama bin Laden's death means for South Asia's future Foreign Policy 05/03/2011:

It is about getting from where we are now to where we want to be -- a realistic vision of a secure, stable, and self-reliant Afghanistan. Achieving that goal requires seizing the opportunity and the political space afforded us by Osama Bin Laden's death to orchestrate and schedule negotiations on a final political settlement within Afghanistan and a broader regional economic and security agreement. In the meantime, as the endgame begins, the coalitions must move as rapidly as possible to a posture of supporting only those Afghan forces and officials who demonstrably take responsibility for their own security and development. That was, after all, the central premise of how the United States distributed funds to European countries under the Marshall Plan.

Success in Afghanistan is above all a matter of aligning incentives. Military strategy must work side by side with a development strategy and a diplomatic strategy that focuses on building incentives for all the relevant players --Afghan villagers and growing urban populations, Afghan troops, the Afghan government, the Pakistani government, the Afghan and possibly the Pakistani Taliban, India, China, Russia, Turkey, the EU and others -- to act in ways that will advance their own interests and America's ultimate goals. That is a job for diplomats more than it is for military and development experts. It may seem like an impossible job, but the sooner it begins, the better the odds of success.
I'm skeptical about the actual prospects of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, even if Congress would fund it. But if the Obama Administration wants to hold up something like that as a face-saving device that accelerates a military pull-out, I won't be complaining terribly about it.

Slaughter - perhaps an unfortunate last name for a foreign policy specialist - also points to a weak point in US counterinsurgency strategy, the idea of establishing secure zones to win the population to the government side. Doing that with local forces is one thing. Doing it with foreign troops is something very different:

Security has to be the top priority. A secure Afghanistan would be a country with low levels of violence that is defended and policed by its own local, regional, and national forces. Security means not only an end to open conflict between the government and insurgents and/or warlords, but also the kind of everyday safety that allows citizens to go to work and to send their children to school. It means a country free from the continual fear of violence or death, whether targeted or random.

Establishing that kind of security across Afghanistan requires not only building up Afghan police and military forces but also creating the incentives for them to risk their lives for the sake of protecting their people. It also means removing U.S. troops as focal points and targets for Taliban attacks, attacks that end up alienating the very villagers that our soldiers seek to protect and win over. Counterinsurgency doctrine assumes that if American troops protect and serve the population of a village, they will have incentives to give up the information those troops need to protect themselves and drive out the enemy. In some cases, for some periods of time, that has proved true. But it is a strategy that assumes the troops providing protection are there to stay for as long as it takes to erase the possibility of retaliation by the enemy that was informed upon. As long as villagers know that American troops are going to leave some day, as they will, and as long as they lack faith in their own government to protect them, their instincts for self-preservation will tell them to keep quiet. Their incentives are to go with the winner, not to help the United States and its allies win. [my emphasis in bold]
I certainly hope the Obama Administration uses this opportunity to push for a rapid exit from the Afghanistan War.

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