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December 02, 2009

Lingering Questions for the President
Posted by The Editors

This post is by Center for American Progress Senior Policy Analyst Caroline Wadhams.

The Administration hit the right tone in terms of making the case for why the United States should remain engaged in Afghanistan while acknowledging our own economic crisis and that “we are passing through a time of great trial.”  His timeline for transitioning security to Afghans beginning in 2011 was key and matches with a position a few of us have taken at the Center for American Progress – that the war in Afghanistan can no longer be open-ended and that we need to establish a timeframe for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Obama’s rhetorical skill was again on display with his remarks to foreign publics, especially to the Afghans when he stated, “I want the Afghan people to understand – America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering. We have no interest in occupying your country.”  He reached out to the Pakistani public, reminding them that we are the biggest contributor to their displaced population and that “going forward, the Pakistani people must know: America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.”  But he also rallied the American public around good old traditional American values.  I especially liked this line:  “For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations.” This was a delicate juggling act appealing to such a diverse audience.

I do, however, have a few questions and concerns regarding elements of the speech.  Here they are:   

No mention of justice: While Obama mentioned supporting agriculture as a top U.S. priority, he made no mention of improving justice in his civilian strategy despite this being a top grievance for Afghans, a mobilizing tool for insurgents, and an essential way to battle corruption. 

Personalization of aid: He implied that the U.S. government would increase funding to individuals at the local level. “We will support Afghan Ministries, Governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people.”  Did he mean to say that we will support Governorships, Provincial councils and local institutions? A personalization of our assistance could be dangerous because of our limited knowledge of the players.  It could also further weaken government institutions and undermine coordination with our partners.

Use of troops: Obama stated that additional U.S. troops would be used to protect population centers and train Afghan security forces. While he didn’t mention this in the speech, many have reported that these troops will go the south and east where the Taliban insurgency is strongest.  Will a surge of U.S. troops in these regions, where we are largely disliked, feed into the Taliban narrative of foreign occupation?   Will we serve to inflame more than resolve despite our best intentions?   Can we protect populations who do not like us from insurgents that they may now support?
Pakistan partnership: Obama described an expansion of the Pakistan partnership.  I like the idea of this, but I do not know what it means now.  Are we going to provide more military aid?  Our main vehicle for this partnership was money in the Kerry-Lugar bill ($1.5 billion per year for five years for non-military assistance).  However, that legislation has caused outrage in Pakistan, increasing tensions between the civilian and military establishments.   What tools do we have now to improve the relationship?  
Threat conflation: His characterization of the threat was a little sloppy – equating those attacking the Pakistani state as the same as those attacking Afghans was not accurate. “Gradually, the Taliban has begun to take control over swaths of Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating acts of terrorism against the Pakistani people.”  Intelligence assessments indicate that they work together, but  Mullah Omar (head of Afghan Taliban) has also distanced himself, at least publicly from the Pakistani Taliban’s attacks. 


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While many Afghans have demonstrated an eagerness to fight the Taliban, the Afghan Army and police have shown themselves unable to maintain themselves in the field, to purge their ranks of corruption, to mount operations at night or to operate any weapon more complicated than a rifle, wrote Dexter Filkins. Does he not know these are the people who defeated Russia with our help? Read Charlie Wilson's War...

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