A First Look At Obama's New Afghan Policy

By Marc Ambinder

President Barack Obama's new posture toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, to be unveiled tomorrow, codifies for the first time Iran's role in regional diplomacy, emphasizes counterterrorism as the primary mission of U.S. policy, and includes a multi-modal surge of civilians and economic aid to both countries.

According to people who have been briefed on the results of the policy review, Obama plans to emphasize results-driven cooperation with both countries. He will endorse a Senate bill, authored by Sens. John Kerry and Richard Lugar, that would condition a significant increase in aid to Pakistan on measurable improvements in Pakistan's internal efforts to combat terrorism. (President Obama and Vice President Biden were cosponsors of the bill in the Senate.)

In seeking to reassure Americans that help to Pakistan is contingent on internal reforms, he plans to stress that Americans will work with those in both countries who demonstratively seek peace and reconciliation.

This will be interpreted as a warning to both President Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. Pointedly, the new Afpak policy does not express a preference for specific leaders, another difference from the previous administration, which had been accused of coddling and courting Karzai and former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf at the expense of rooting out corruption and terrorism. Afghanistan holds elections later this year, and the U.S. hasn't found a candidate it likes.

The Americans will lean on Zardari to end his military's ongoing cooperation with the Taliban. Some analysts may interpret the new American policy to mean that the U.S. is open to working more closely with the leader of the main opposition party in Pakistan, Narwaz Sharif.

A few weeks ago, Obama announced that an additional 17,000 U.S. troops would be sent to Afghanistan. Tomorrow, he plans to spell out their mission. 4,000 additional troops will be tasked with training Afghan soldiers and the national police; the administration hopes to have more than 130,000 soldiers and 82,000 police officers trained by 2011. The rest of the troops will be given expanded counter-terrorism assignments and charged with defeating Al Qaeda, not just killing them in isolation.

It is not clear whether Obama will mention Iran by name -- I think he probably will -- but he will ask neighboring nations to form a working group to handle disputes and plan longer-term initiatives. It will be clear, in any event, that Iran ought to be included in the group.

The new bearing reflects Vice President Joe Biden's imprint. He has been arguing internally for a more focused counterterrorism mission rather than a larger, more complex counterinsurgency mission, which would involve significantly more American resources and troops. Though the President plans to endorse the concepts of counterinsurgency as a means to fight the Taliban, it will not be the primary objective of U.S. and NATO troops. U.S. policy also focuses on improving the legitimacy of Afghan government institutions by endorsing anti-corruption drives, by devoting U.S. resources to counternarcotics missions, and by providing basic goods and services to Afghans outside Kabul.

Administration officials briefed Congress on the outlines of the policy this afternoon; NATO and EU countries were looped in on Wednesday.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/03/a-first-look-at-obamas-new-afghan-policy/6992/