Political opponents have characterized President Obama’s trip to Afghanistan on the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden as spiking the football. However, considering the operational and political challenges of fully implementing the long-term strategic partnership agreement signed in Kabul earlier this week, Obama’s play looks more like a Hail Mary pass than excessive celebration.
Sure, the timing of the visit was no coincidence. Politics in an election year; who knew? But in truth, the death of bin Laden, the end of the Afghanistan war and the future relationship between the two countries are all interrelated. The strategic stakes are high, and so is the degree of political difficulty.
The strategic partnership agreement makes sense from a policy standpoint—continuing to strengthen Afghan security forces and civilian government and keep pressure on extremist safe havens in Pakistan—but the odds of success are no better than 50-50. Players both here in the United States and in the region, each with competing agendas, could keep Obama and the United States short of their goal line.
To the credit of both the Obama and Karzai administrations, short-term political turmoil regarding the string of recent incidents—the Quran burning, Bales shooting, and insensitive Marine video and Army photos—did not derail negotiations on the partnership agreement that will enable a status of forces agreement (SOFA) to allow military and security cooperation to continue beyond 2014, when Afghanistan (in theory) takes full responsibility for its own security, and the war as it presently constituted (in theory) ends.
President Obama, in remarks at Bagram Air Base after meeting his Afghan counterpart, reminded the American people “10 years ago, the United States and our allies went to war to make sure that al Qaeda could never again use this country [Afghanistan] to launch attacks against us.”
Notwithstanding the administration’s intention to formally end the Afghan war in 2014, the work required to meet that “never again” standard won’t end when the war does.
Afghanistan will need support for years before its security forces and government institutions can stand on their own. This should hardly be surprising. There are valid strategic reasons why, long after the shooting stops, the United States still stationed forces in Europe, Japan, and South Korea. The post-conflict phase is arguably more significant in a country’s development than the war. We painfully learned that lesson in Iraq.
As documents seized in Abbottabad last year in the bin Laden raid and released this week by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center reveal, bin Laden as the CEO of al Qaeda had a difficult relationship with his “affiliates,” which possessed the bulk of al Qaeda’s residual operational capability. The documents demonstrate that, while the West tends to view al Qaeda as a monolith, the network consists of various elements, including Qaeda allies like the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) that have varied agendas, operational approaches and a somewhat surprising level of independence.
While core al Qaeda has been diminished by bin Laden’s demise, the affiliates have not. They will continue to attack the Afghan government and U.S. interests in the region. In other words, the mission in Afghanistan is far from accomplished, and the path forward uncertain.
One condition for the end of the war is a successful political settlement between the Taliban and the Karzai government. Earlier this year, there were promising developments from preliminary discussions between the United States and the Taliban. The Taliban publicly committed to opening an office in Qatar to facilitate formal negotiations, but it suspended all talks following the Quran burning and Bales shooting.
The strategic framework agreement with Afghanistan was intended to send a clear message to both Pakistan and the Taliban: we are going to help defend Afghanistan over the long term and you cannot outwait us. The Taliban’s initial response came shortly after the Obama left Afghanistan—another attack.
At this stage, the Taliban, supported by elements in Pakistan, may well believe they are winning. There is little indication they are poised to come to the bargaining table. More likely, they will try to wait out the withdrawal of combat forces over the next two years.
There also is the question of public and congressional support. The public, and a growing number of Americans from all sides of the political spectrum, want the troops home yesterday, not two years from now. On Capitol Hill, members of both parties increasingly share that skepticism.
The lingering economic uncertainty and political paralysis regarding the federal budget and debt has left members of Congress looking for unpopular accounts to reduce in the name of fiscal (if not national security) responsibility. Long-term foreign assistance has a thin constituency on a good day. The Obama administration will have its hands full convincing a war-weary public and its elected representatives to remain engaged in and supportive of Afghanistan and the region once the war ends.
Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, author of a new book, The Debt Bomb, is indicative of an isolationist streak that is creeping back into the national-security debate.
“What is the greatest threat to our national security,” he asked on the Kudlow Report. “Is it al Qaeda or is it our debt?”
The answer is, all of the above, including several global challenges that can and will affect U.S. security and prosperity in the years ahead. This is not the Cold War where there is one overarching threat. These should not be zero-sum calculations for the world’s remaining superpower.
It may still be true that the right policies make for good politics. But in the context of Afghanistan, it is no slam dunk.