AfPak triptych

by Andrew Sprung

On Friday, The New York Times op-ed page put up a neatly modulated triptych of informed opinion on Obama's AfPak strategy.  Assessments by Ahmed Rashid, Nathaniel Fick and Marc Lynch all centered on the imposition of a timeline for the beginning of a draw-down of U.S. forces.  Read left to right, their verdicts formed a continuum: the timeline is a mistake (Rashid), the timeline is a calculated risk (Fick), the timeline is a brilliant strategic stroke (Lynch).

Each argument was compelling in its turn; taken together, they probably echoed the debate as it played out in the White House. They also illustrate Andrew Exum's observation: "I know about 50 really smart people on Afghanistan with lots of time on the ground there, and no two have the same opinion about what U.S. policy should be."

Rashid argues that the target date for the beginning of draw-down sends the wrong message to the Taliban, the Afghan government and the Pakistani government. The Taliban, he argues, may "melt into the north and west of the country, where NATO troops operate under caveats that limit their ability to go on the offensive." Afghanistan's "ruling elites are nervous about being dumped by America, as they were in 1989 after the Soviets withdrew."*  As for Pakistan, it's

the biggest problem. While President Asif Ali Zardari has said all the things Washington wants to hear, there is no agreement as yet from the Pakistan military to go after the Afghan Taliban strongholds in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Provinces. The Pakistan military is unlikely to act unless there is a parallel movement by the Americans to defuse Indo-Pakistani tensions over Kashmir, and unless India is more willing to reduce its forces on Pakistan’s eastern border.

Here Rashid's argument seems incomplete. What is the likely effect of the withdrawal date on Pakistan?  As it turns out, Steve Col (who called Obama's speech "the right choice in a difficult situation" but also has acknowledged multiple difficulties with Administration strategy) completed Rashid's thought (voiced elsewhere) a week prior:

The problem lies in how the Taliban and the Pakistan Army will read the explicit use of a calendar. Ahmed Rashid, on NPR’s Morning Edition, speaking from Lahore, voiced the same fear that seized me when I heard the President be so explicit about 2011: No matter how nuanced the invocation, Pakistani liberals fighting against the Army’s hedging strategy of support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda will be demoralized by the use of a specific date. They will interpret it as evidence that the United States has already made a decision to leave the Afghan battlefield and that it will ultimately repeat its past pattern of abandoning Pakistan periodically. This may be unfair, but the perception is inevitable.

Fick, in contrast, argues that while the timeline "makes no sense...from a purely military perspective," it  may  be effective in prodding to the Pakistani as well as the Afghan government to do what the U.S. thinks is necessary:

Progress depends on two political developments: inducing the administration of President Hamid Karzai to govern effectively, and persuading Pakistan that militant groups within its borders pose as great a threat to Islamabad as they do to Kabul. A limit to America’s commitment may actually help us meet these goals. (The Democratic victories in the 2006 midterm elections, for example, convinced Iraqi Sunni leaders that the United States was on its way out, inspiring them to join the Awakening movement that led to better security across the country.) The strategic benefits of setting a timeline, in this case, may outweigh its tactical costs.

To Fick, the strategy constitutes a huge, if exquisitely calculated, risk:

Announcing the timeline was risky, and it could turn out to be our undoing. The president delivered two intertwined messages in his speech at West Point outlining his Afghan policy: one to his American audience (“I see the way out of this war”), and one to the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the Taliban (“I’m in to win”). The danger of dual messages, of course, is that each may find the other audience, with Americans hearing over-commitment and Afghans hearing abandonment.

The only way to reassure both is to show demonstrable progress on the ground. A credible declaration of American limits may, paradoxically, be the needed catalyst.

Lynch sees the pullout date as not so much a risk as an absolute necessity. Back on Nov. 11,  the Times' Helene Cooper reported that Obama, in choosing "none of the above" when the military presented him with four options, sent them back primarily to find some form of leverage  to prod the Karzai government to reform. The timeline, according to Lynch, is that lever:

The deadline is essential politically because it will provide the necessary urgency for Afghans to make the institutional reforms that will ensure their own survival. An open-ended commitment creates a terrible moral hazard in which Afghan leaders, assuming American troops will always be there to protect them, may make risky or counterproductive decisions. A limited, conditional commitment creates the leverage needed to generate the institutional transformation necessary to cement any gains made by the military.

Lynch's chief worry is the mirror image of those who fear that the timeline will embolden the enemy.  He fears that it won't sufficiently frighten our allies and thus jolt them into action (as he alleges Obama's pending election victory did the Iraqi government -- because the U.S. won't stick to it:

The greater problem for the Obama administration will be to make the commitment to the drawdown credible. Many expect that the military will come back in a year asking for more troops and time. The blizzard of conflicting messages coming from Washington this week did little to diminish the expectation. This is troubling, because the political logic of the deadline works only if Afghans on both sides believe in it.

So there you have it. The quick-release surge may embolden the Taliban. It may weaken those in Pakistan who support full-scale cooperation with U.S.-led efforts. It may not have the desired effect on the Afghan government. It may turn Americans against the effort to stabilize Afghanistan. Or it may fool no one and devolve into open-ended commitment.

But who has a better idea?