As he prepares to give his fourth State of the Union address, President Barack Obama is expected to focus on numerous matters of domestic policy. Whatever brief mention he may make of foreign affairs will probably focus largely on celebrating a gradual end to the nation’s wars. Taking this narrative further, many now speculate that the president may use his speech to announce an accelerated troop drawdown from Afghanistan and a plan for a minimalist presence after the current NATO mission there ends next year.
This storyline is partly right but also partly wrong. It forgets how presidents tend to view foreign policy, especially in their second terms as they start to look to the history books. It also forgets just how much the Afghanistan campaign is now Obama’s. Robert Gates, Adm. Mike Mullen, David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal, Gen. John Allen, Hillary Clinton, Ryan Crocker, Richard Holbrooke — all these figures have come and gone, with Leon Panetta likely to do so soon too. Yes, Osama bin Laden is now dead, and the remaining global terrorist threat has migrated somewhat back toward the Middle East and North Africa as well. But Afghanistan remains Al Qaeda’s original preferred sanctuary, and South Asia more generally remains one of the most terrorist-prone and nuclear-armed parts of the planet. The president has been intent on avoiding a quagmire in Afghanistan. But those who would go to the other extreme and argue that it no longer really matters almost surely do not have the president’s ear.
Beginning with the State of the Union address, and then continuing through a major policy review with his new secretaries of state and defense and new field commander, as well as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and international partners, Obama needs to lay out a clear strategy for Afghanistan for the months and years ahead. The current debate is far too fixated on the narrow military question of figuring out what America’s long-term presence should be in Afghanistan after 2014. The president needs to broaden his administration’s prism on the problem. Four particular ideas should influence him in the process.
1. This year’s force levels should stay near current levels of about 65,000 Americans through the 2013 fighting season. It is already getting late to plan a big drawdown for this winter — and it is pointless to do the drawdown in spring or summer during the peak of the fighting season. Having pulled more than 30,000 U.S. forces out of the country starting in late 2011, the president should now be patient with what happens over the next eight months. By fall, substantial U.S. troop reductions will be feasible, as Afghan forces will have assumed primary security responsibility throughout the country. But in the meantime, we should go slow, and give the new Afghanistan field commander, Gen. Joe Dunford, time to deepen and consolidate progress in the country’s crucial eastern regions in particular.
2. After 2014, when the International Security Assistance Force mission ends in Afghanistan, we should plan on a bridging mission to the U.S. forces. Reportedly, former ISAF commander Gen. John Allen favored keeping up to 20,000 Americans in the country after 2014 while the White House pushed for fewer than 10,000. The right answer is a compromise — starting closer to Allen’s 20,000 in 2015 but moving toward 10,000 over the next two to three years, as Afghans acquire the logistics, air power, helicopters, artillery fires and other key secondary capabilities that will take a few more years to develop.
3. Obama should ask Congress to become more of a full partner in the Afghanistan mission. The key point here is that Afghanistan needs stronger checks and balances, stronger political parties and less dominance by the president of the country. When members of Congress visit Afghanistan, they should therefore ask for more meetings with Afghan parliamentarians and governors. Congress should also channel more funds to Afghan political parties and encourage Afghanistan’s parliament to create research organizations modeled after the Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Research Service that can provide it greater heft in developing legislation.
4. Working with Afghans and Pakistanis, we need to develop a clearer sense of what reconciliation with elements of the Taliban could involve. For too long, we have oscillated between signaling that a peace deal is our only way out of the war with honor — essentially telling our enemy that we are desperate for his help — and getting bogged down over the technicalities of small prisoner exchanges designed to kick-start a negotiation process that has remained dead in the water.
One way to give a new boost to reconciliation is to seek out insurgent commanders who are willing to stop fighting in exchange for positions in district-level or provincial-level government. Associated insurgent militias could be allowed to keep their light weapons if they stopped fighting and swore allegiance to the government. Such arrangements would be fine on a small scale, as long as the individual militias were small, and as long as they had to give up any heavier weaponry like mortars they might possess. That way, they could always be disciplined by Kabul (with its increasingly capable 350,000-strong security forces) in an extreme case. Funds for local economic activities could be used as leverage as well. This pocketbook approach to enforcing respect for central authority is of course a time-honored Afghan method. Such militias would have to be registered with the state, and biometric indicators used to register individual members, so that their behavior could be tracked. Over time, these militias should be increasingly integrated within normal state security forces.
Not all of these ideas need to be in the State of the Union, of course. But the Afghanistan War is too important--to this country's security, to the president's legacy, to the memories and honor of those fellow Americans who have sacrificed so much there--for us to just limp out of the place over the next two years. We can and must do better.