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December 04, 2009

Leverage, of the Ground-Level Governance and Geostrategic Kind
Posted by David Shorr

To paraphrase what Albert Camus said about suicide, the only interesting foreign policy question is what is our leverage over the problem? This morning's Afghanistan discussion hosted by American Security Project was no exception.

Caroline Wadhams of CAP made some of the same points at today's event that she made in a recent guest post here on DA, particularly the weak-to-absent emphasis on stronger protections for the rights of ordinary Afghani citizens. She has an interesting observation about how President Obama spoke of working through regional local officials as individuals rather than institutions -- perhaps a syntactical slip, but a telling one. But even as someone inclined to favor (right-sized rather than comprehensive) state-building, I felt compelled to ask whether Obama's shying away from governance questions reflects a necessary trade-off based on what is accomplishable. Caroline responded that the US can exert political influence by pressing these matters without taking away from its military objectives and there are feasible improvements that can be made to the rule of law and criminal justice systems. Indeed, she argued, some elements of counterinsurgency and police training will contribute in exactly that direction. I hope Caroline's right, but I tend to think that institution-building requires a lot of follow-through. I sure hope we can make good on a civilian surge, but I worry that the availability of civilian personnel is even more strapped than on the military side.

Another interesting part of today's discussion focused on the role of the Pakistani security establishment and the wider regional context. Here again, the leverage issue. In another post I wrote about the idea that pressuring the Taliban from the Afghan side of the border would alter the calculation of the Pakistani security elite to be less mischievous, which I raised with today's panelists. No dice, said Bernard Finel of ASP and Jonathan Landay of McClatchey News. Both said that the Pakistani officer corps really only cared about India. From a leverage standpoint, Finel at least held out hope that if the US focused on this side of the problem, we could make an impact. According to Landay, America wiped any credibility it had when it made the nuclear deal with India.


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