The Status Report: Obama’s Challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan

One year ago, Brookings experts wrote a series of 12 memos to the incoming president on the most pressing policy issues facing the country. Now they assess the administration’s progress on those issues in The Status Report, a daily series of commentary with video to be featured in POLITICO’s Arena. Vanda Felbab-Brown gives President Obama a B for laying out the right strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan but doing it too late in 2009 to stem the insurgency, corruption and apathy.

Confronting the Challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan: B

Amid a year of difficult foreign policy challenges, the war in Afghanistan and its spillover effects in Pakistan has become the defining foreign policy issue for the Obama administration. In a December 2008 memo, I urged the president-elect to focus on reversing the strongly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, improving economic opportunities and the quality of governance in Afghanistan, presenting the U.S. and international effort in Afghanistan as one that connects with the elemental aspirations of the Afghan people and expanding the Afghanistan agenda to strongly incorporate Pakistan.

After a heart-wrenching debate in the United States during the first year of his administration, President Obama announced in December 2009 the right strategy to accomplish the objectives I’d laid out for Afghanistan-Pakistan. He also committed much-needed resources to accomplish them.

Unfortunately, however, 2009 turned out to be a year of lost opportunities in Afghanistan during which momentum continued to be lost to the insurgency, corruption and apathy. Windows of opportunity continued to close. The Obama administration’s policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan thus earns a B.

President Obama first announced his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy in March 2009 after a two-month review. It consisted of a broad counterinsurgency effort that sought to reverse the worsening security in Afghanistan and to create the necessary environment for a large-scale economic development effort, including a strong agricultural program that would also reduce poppy cultivation. Yet, despite its multifaceted and comprehensive approach, the policy was couched in fairly narrow counterterrorism terms, emphasizing mainly the need to prevent al Qaeda safe-havens in Afghanistan. While this objective is indeed the key U.S. interest in the region, the narrow counterterrorism message of the president´s March speech failed to resonate with the Afghan people.

Worse yet, the March review did not include an adequate assessment of the resources the strategy required. Consequently, the Obama administration was greatly surprised in September when the newly appointed U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, announced that he lacked the resources to accomplish the mission and reverse the continually deteriorating security in Afghanistan. Gen. McChrystal´s dire, if accurate, assessment precipitated a second review and a fundamental reconsideration of the policy in the region.

President Obama should be applauded for taking due diligence and carefully evaluating whether the increase in U.S. blood and treasure implied by Gen. McChrystal´s assessment was indeed necessary, and for not falling into a potential quagmire. Yet, the amount of time the second review took further weakened the already fragile confidence in the United States, abroad and among the Afghan population. With respect to the objective of improving governance and thus harnessing the aspirations of Afghan people, expectations were also dashed. The international community was unprepared for the widespread corruption that plagued the Afghan presidential elections and the background dealing among Afghan powerbrokers that characterized months of the presidential campaign. And the subsequent bashing of President-Elect Hamid Karzai in the international community for corruption did little to establish the needed foundation for improved governance in Afghanistan.

With respect to Pakistan, the administration’s policy fared better, partly because the level of expectation concerning the quality of the bilateral relationship was low. Like in Afghanistan, the Obama administration inherited a steadily deteriorating security situation in Pakistan, deep structural problems in the country and decades-long hollowing out of the Pakistani state and a bilateral relationship plagued by deep distrust. Unlike in Afghanistan, U.S. leverage in Pakistan was considerably more limited.

While the Obama administration succeeded in helping the Pakistani military and civilian leadership to develop the will and capacity to confront the ever-more dangerous Pakistani jihadists, it has been less successful in persuading the Pakistanis that it is equally in their interest to target the Afghanistan-oriented militants. Nor has it yet managed to persuade the Pakistani leadership that the U.S. wants to be a genuine long-term partner of Pakistan. The conditions in the Kerry-Lugar Bill authorizing $1.5 billion a year in U.S. aid to Pakistan over five years, which was supposed to cement that new strategic partnership, for example, were widely interpreted in Pakistan as an intolerable encroachment on Pakistani sovereignty.

Overall, while the multifaceted strategy and increase in resources for Afghanistan and Pakistan announced in December 2009 are necessary for U.S. goals and vital security interests in the region, critical questions remain about the effort. Foremost: Will the dedicated resources be sufficient and will the United States have enough strategic patience to accomplish the goals? The current strategy does not guarantee success, but it makes it possible.