Sixty days into his presidency, it's official: President Barack Hussein Obama now owns the war in Afghanistan and has expanded it to Pakistan. And not a minute too soon.
As the president was unveiling his new strategy to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda" and its allies, Pakistanis were cleaning up the debris of a suicide bomber's latest attack in northern Pakistan – an explosion inside a mosque, of all places, which killed 48 Muslims and wounded dozens more. Meanwhile, key Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan were distributing an agreement to bury their differences in order to counter the new American-led offensive "for the sake of God, God's happiness, and the strength of religion."
Here's what has changed, and what hasn't, in the strategy that Mr. Obama and his key aides unveiled today:
First, the president's policy is a "surge" of forces, though he studiously avoided using that word for fear of paying any tribute to what former President George Bush learned and accomplished, albeit belatedly, in Iraq. The addition of 4,000 more troops to the 17,000 the president has already committed will bring the number of combat, training, and support troops on the Afghan ground from the 31,000 deployed at the end of Mr. Bush's term in December, 2008 to some 68,000 by this fall, senior military officials say. So those who have urged Mr. Obama to reduce America's commitment to the Af-Pak conflict are likely to be disappointed. Indeed, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, lost little time today in criticizing the strategy.
Second, Mr. Obama is adding hundreds more civilians to the effort to encourage Afghanistan's development and internal stability and is tripling development aid to Pakistan. This "surge" of civilian forces and resources means that President Obama eschewed the advice of those in his inner circle – among them, Vice President Biden and adviser Jim Steinberg – who reportedly lobbied for downsizing our efforts and adopting a narrower counter-terrorism strategy that would have enabled Washington to build and train the Afghan army and police, declare victory and leave. President Obama's announcement, followed by a briefing by three key advisors at the White House, suggests that the president has opted for the broader strategy favored by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Afghan special Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke, and CENTCOM chief General David Petraeus. The goal of that more ambitious strategy is, in Mr. Obama's words, to enhance the "military, governance, and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan."
In remarks after the president spoke, Bruce Riedel, an author of the new Af-Pak strategy, specifically rejected the term "nation-building" to describe what the Obama Administration will do in Af-Pak. But his description of the road ahead sounds an awful lot like, well, nation building. "There are 396 districts in Afghanistan. There's been no training at that level; There are lots of things like that we can do," he said.
The aides also stressed Washington's desire to help Afghanistan improve its embattled agricultural sector, hit hard by war and competition from the more lucrative poppy crops in southern Afghanistan, largely controlled by the Taliban. America and its NATO allies will also step up efforts to train more police, help protect judges, and stand up for courts at the district and provincial levels. Richard Holbrooke focused on the need to strengthen the psychological and communications aspects of the Af-Pak war. Washington, he said, would not repeat its mistake of ignoring the 150 illegal FM radio stations and the Taliban's nightly broadcasts of "names of people they're going to behead or they've beheaded."
Make no mistake: this is an ambitious agenda.
Third, despite Mr. Obama's call for a trilateral "dialogue" with Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama seems committed to continuing, and even increasing, the Predator attacks on Al Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan that have already killed an estimated 9 of the top 20 Al Qaeda leaders. Although the president only alluded to the strikes in his remarks, Michelle Flournoy, his number three at the Pentagon, said that the "counterterrorism piece" of the Af-Pak strategy would remain "a central part of this mission,." Indeed, she added, "I certainly believe we are going to be increasing our intelligence focus in this theater, and as opportunities arise that may increase the pace of operations, as well."
How different is the strategy announced today from what candidate Obama promised or for that matter, what leading Republicans have pressed for? Not very different, say some Washington insiders. Max Boot, a conservative analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, concluded that President Obama's strategy was "pretty much all that supporters of the war effort could have asked for, and probably pretty similar to what a President McCain would have decided on."
James S. Robbins, a former Pentagon official with the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, noted that the Obama strategy was remarkably similar to what former President Bush had proposed in 2004. The Bush strategy had "five pillars" that strongly resembled those outlined by Mr. Obama today: defeat terrorism, help build and strengthen the Afghan security structure, help Afghanistan"clear and hold" territory, promote reconstruction and good governance, and engage regional states in ensuring Afghanistan's success.
But President Bush's war of choice in Iraq sapped priority and resources from the war of necessity in Afghanistan. President Obama now intends to reverse that flow and also to place greater priority on stabilizing Pakistan, without which Afghan security is a non-starter.
Whether President Obama succeeds will depend on how he implements his strategy. And implementation is still a work in process, his aides acknowledge. Team Obama also chose not to clarify how they will reconcile the sometimes contradictory goals Obama endorsed with the realities of the region. For instance, how will they reconcile their determination to work closely with Pakistan with their knowledge that elements in the Pakistani security services are aiding and abetting the Taliban inside Afghanistan?
They also said little about the specific "benchmarks" they would adopt for measuring progress in this war. How will they measure, say, a decline in Afghan corruption? The President's strategy, says Mr. Riedel, is a "road map for moving forward," not a "campaign plan" or a "straightjacket."
Giving your administration diplomatic and military wiggle room is almost always wise. But by making the defeat of Al-Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan a key foreign policy objective, President Obama has now given the nation a benchmark for measuring him, his staying power, and the effectiveness of his foreign policy.