Analysis: What Obama's missing in Afghanistan

President Barack Obama listens to Afgan President Hamid Karzai President Barack Obama listens to Afgan President Hamid Karzai Charles Dharapak/AP

As America’s longest war winds down, there is a giant hole in Washington's thinking where a strategy should be. Despite the hopeful talk that came out of his summit in Washington with Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week, President Obama is in danger of losing control of South Central Asia entirely, sacrificing a decade’s worth of blood and treasure as he begins his second term. Most of the focus now is on how rapid the U.S. troop drawdown will be. But the bigger problem for Obama is the absence of a U.S. diplomatic vision for the region -- and a diplomat to execute it.

More than 11 years after 9/11,  the United States still has no comprehensive approach to the region that yielded up the worst-ever attack on America’s continental soil. Despite Obama’s pledge to remain committed to helping Afghanistan until at least 2024, the administration has failed to conceive of and articulate a strategy that would at once exert intense pressure on Pakistan to cease its policies of granting haven to and support for Taliban-allied insurgents in Afghanistan; shore up the hopes and lives of the many Afghans who still want to rescue their country from the Taliban, and coax India and other surrounding countries with which Washington has relationships into playing more of a supporting role in these efforts.

Most commentary on Afghanistan tends to dwell on the failure, or meager results, of America’s counterinsurgency strategy rather than what has been an unquestioned success. Over the past decade Obama, and George W. Bush before him, managed to construct one of the most comprehensive military alliances in history, with 27 other NATO nations and 22 non-NATO countries deploying  nearly 45,000 troops in Afghanistan at present, in addition to the 68,000 U.S. troops there. And yet there has been no commensurate effort to transform this military structure into a united diplomatic front that could jointly place pressure on Pakistan, whose recalcitrant behavior continues to be perhaps the single biggest obstacle to defeating the Taliban. Despite last summer’s Tokyo donors’ conference and the NATO summit in Chicago last May, U.S. diplomats continue to see the Pakistan problem as mainly a bilateral one. But the evidence is to the contrary. It isn’t just American lives that have been lost; it is also hundreds of British, French, Canadian, Italian, German, Danish  and Australian lives, to name just a few. 

The upshot is that although Obama has committed the United States to a ten-year strategic partnership with Afghanistan after 2014 -- and NATO nations chipped in with $16 billion in aid pledges in Tokyo last summer -- Washington and other major powers continue to allow a middle-sized developing country, Pakistan, to defy them with virtual impunity. Even as some of the most powerful nations on earth have pursued tough multilateral sanctions against Iran, they have not threatened Pakistan with a similar fate, despite Islamabad’s role in aiding in the deaths of their soldiers. And Pakistan, although nuclear-armed, can stand isolation even less than Iran can. Its biggest strategic fear is an economically rising India, and sanctions would mean Islamabad risks losing economic, and thus military, ground to its arch-rival. 

“We have to be willing to escalate the pressure, which in my view has to include Pakistan's very difficult economic circumstances," Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations, told me last spring.  "It is a failure of diplomacy of the highest order.” U.S. and NATO officials remain hesitant about offending Islamabad because of a paralyzing fear that, if Pakistan becomes destabilized, its nuclear arsenal could fall into the wrong hands. 

This drift in policy shows no signs of abating. On the contrary, since the sudden death of Richard Holbrooke on Dec. 13, 2010, there has been no a senior diplomat in place with enough authority, toughness, and vision to handle the problem, according to U.S. and European officials . Holbrooke’s replacement as Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, career Foreign Service officer Marc Grossman, was widely considered to have been ineffective and provoked infighting from the State Department’s South and Central Asian Bureau. But Grossman retired in mid-December, and his job went to an even more junior diplomat, his deputy David Pearce.

Cynics in Washington tend to write Afghanistan off as a failure anyway; so why not just rush for the exits? But based on a trip I made there last May, such talk may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Abandonment is a national trauma in Afghanistan, similar to what Hiroshima means to the Japanese or 9/11 means to Americans. Afghans recall what happened in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush abandoned the country after the mujahedeen forced a Soviet withdrawal; and then again in 2002, when Bush's son, George W., turned his attention and resources to Iraq while the Taliban quietly regrouped. That is why many Afghans said the psychology changed after the news of long-term U.S. and Western commitments, which tended to undercut the Taliban’s ostensible plan to simply wait out Western withdrawal.

Yet if America is making a commitment, America must also have a strategy. Last month marked the two-year anniversary of Richard Holbrooke’s death. His widow, the writer Kati Marton, told me in an interview last year that only months before his death at age 69, Holbrooke  had begun to grow confident that he could deliver a strategic vision for the region that would address the fundamental issues in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. "The thing that keeps me awake some nights,” she said, “is that I'm not at all sure he had that conversation with the president."

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