The Holes in Obama's Afghanistan Plan

In the private deliberations leading up to Friday’s speech, Obama repeatedly told his principal advisers that they needed “an exit strategy.” Leslie H. Gelb asks: Where is it?

Ron Edmonds / AP Photo

In the private deliberations leading up to Friday’s speech, Obama repeatedly told his principal advisers that they needed “an exit strategy.” Leslie H. Gelb, author of Power Rules, asks: Where is it?

With great strength and steely determination in his voice and demeanor, President Obama presented his one-shoe policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan on Friday. The one shoe was to assure Americans, Afghans, Pakistanis, and the world that the great American commitment to fighting terrorism would not be “a blank check.” He looked sternly into the cameras and said that Pakistanis and Afghans alike would be held accountable for their performances. He even said that we would hold ourselves accountable for our own performance there.

Blessedly, the president excluded from those goals the principal Bush effort to transform Afghanistan into a democratic, free-market paradise. (The resurrection of that effort will have to wait for the Palin administration.)

But nowhere did he drop the other shoe. What would we do if Afghans and Pakistanis failed to meet our benchmarks? Would we merely scold them? Would we stop helping them? And what would we do about our own performance, if it turned out to be wanting?

Indeed, not only did this second shoe fail to drop, but we have no idea what the second shoe is all about—because the Obama team has yet to formulate the very benchmarks that the president says are at the heart of his new and hard-headed strategy. It seems to me that the president can't make final decisions on the strategy without clearly delineated benchmarks, which are necessary to judge the viability and accountability of the strategy.

Obama took no questions on this subject or any other part of his speech. Nor did his aides have much to offer by way of explanation, save to say that they were working on these benchmarks.

And who will devise these benchmarks? Will the leaders in Kabul and Islamabad be consulted? If they are, they are sure to insist on very low standards, and even then, probably won’t be able to meet them. And don’t expect them to inquire as to the penalties for nonperformance or malperformance. They will certainly try to finesse these matters when the time comes. That’s precisely what the Pakistanis and Afghans have been doing in response to efforts these last seven years to hold them accountable for their performances. Indeed, the Bush administration notoriously ladled billions of dollars in military aid to the Pakistanis for counterinsurgency operations when their military hadn’t been engaged in such operations for many moons.

Even formidable Democratic senators applauded these new nonexistent benchmarks. And alas, even they did not suggest what retribution the United States should take in the event that the recipients fell short of the treasured milestones.

For those of you who haven’t caught up with the details of the new Obama strategy, the key points are:

•Treating Afghanistan and Pakistan as one policy unit. That is, we cannot succeed in Afghanistan without succeeding in Pakistan.

•Major push for a regional contact group to assist us in unspecified ways and to include China, Russia, India, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the Central Asian states. (Please note the inclusion of the UAE if you need to laugh.)

•Increase in U.S. troops above the 17,000, approved two weeks ago, by another 4,000, bringing the U.S. total to more than 60,000. (We know that the U.S. military had requested an additional 30,000 above this number and Obama promised to look at that request in the future.)

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•Vast increases in the Afghan army and police, and the U.S. funds to pay for this and the 4,000 troops cited above to train them.

•Vast increases in U.S. economic aid and hundreds more civilian personnel to carry out the needed economic programs and an additional commitment of $1.5 billion yearly in economic aid to Pakistan.

•Attempting to split up the Taliban and to divide them from al Qaeda.

•Strengthening the government in Kabul and dealing with corruption and the vast drug-production effort in poppy-field heaven.

•Getting the Pakistanis to take troops off their border with India and redeploy them to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda in its northwestern provinces.

These measures, Obama said, will be the means by which we pursue America’s new objectives. Blessedly, Obama excluded from those goals the principal Bush effort to transform Afghanistan into a democratic, free-market paradise. (The resurrection of that effort will have to await the Palin administration.)

Obama had a lot of his own goals to offer instead, including to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” He offered a number of additional goals as he made his way through his presentation, but rest assured, they only add to the burdens we can expect to bear.

Obama didn’t describe the U.S. aim as he had the last few weeks, namely “to ensure” that Afghan soil would not be used for terrorist attacks. But that was the sum and substance of it. It is a very ambitious goal.

Obama gave us not the slightest glimpse of the policy alternatives he had under review. It’s absolutely critical to our ability to evaluate the good sense of what he’s doing to see what he chose not to do. Did he look, for example, at the alternative of surging for three years to give Afghan friendlies a boost, then withdrawing combat forces, while we tried to split the Taliban and put in place a policy of deterrence and containment of future terrorist threats? Nor did Obama address other policy alternatives.

I can only hope that Congressional leaders will undertake a serious review of Obama’s strategy and where he is taking our country regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan. Better for the likes of Senator John Kerry and others to hold rigorous hearings now rather than to bemoan our unexamined fate in two or three years.

In the private deliberations leading up to today’s speech, Obama repeatedly told his principal advisers that they needed “an exit strategy.” And in Friday’s speech, he stressed that “we will not blindly stay the course.” We can only hope that there is substance behind this phrase and that he and his aides have actually concocted an exit strategy. Of course, I don’t expect him to share that exit strategy with us; it would be unsettling to our friends in South Asia. But I hope he actually has one—unlike the yet-to-come benchmarks.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009) which shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.