Obama's Afghanistan Hurdles

Robert D. Kaplan on how Obama can improve the situation in Afghanistan so as to free himself up for pressing economic matters

President-elect Barack Obama has said that he wants to focus attention on Afghanistan, which, as opposed to Iraq, represents the legitimate War on Terrorism. In fact, the real situation is slightly different. The United States economy is in such bad shape that domestic issues will have to be his primary concern, meaning he needs Iraq to stay off the front pages and Afghanistan to start showing some amelioration so that he can busy himself with issues like reducing unemployment and lifting the U. S. out of recession.

How does he do this?

He’s already made a good start in Iraq. By appointing centrist pragmatists like Marine Gen. (Ret.) James Jones and Sen. Hillary Clinton to top national security positions, and reappointing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, he has sent a message in the face of an uptick in violence in Iraq that his administration will not be rushing for the exits there, so as not to risk a disintegration of the country. Indeed, Obama’s strategy in Iraq will likely be defined by “no risks,” so that if Iraq founders, the blame will be laid on the previous administration.

The situation in Afghanistan is different. There, Obama will need to take some immediate decisions his first weeks or even days in office. We are involved in a counterinsurgency that it appears we are losing. The Taliban has a credible presence in most parts of the country and the additional troops we deploy there may have to go to Kabul to defend the capital itself from enemy attack. That’s how bad the situation is.

Beyond the immediate threat to Kabul, we need to start winning the counterinsurgency. The way to neutralize insurgents is not by fighting them directly but by getting well-trained and motivated indigenous forces to do the fighting for you. That way you win the support of the people, because the population cannot be expected to fight on the side of foreigners. In short, we can only eventually win in Afghanistan by growing the Afghan National Army. Afghanistan has a population of 32 million compared with Iraq’s 27.5 million. It is also a more sprawling country, riven by mountains to a much greater extent than the flat Mesopotamian heartland. Yet the Afghan army, at 70,000 men, is considerably less than a third the size of Iraq’s. We’ve shown in Iraq that we know how to grow armies. The challenge Obama faces is providing us with the wherewithal to do just that.

Army Maj. Gen. Robert W. Cone, who leads the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, has said that he needs 3,300 more military advisors to help train the Afghan army. Those advisors must come from the ranks of the U.S. Army. They should come from operational units that have actually served in the field in Afghanistan or Iraq. You want only the very best doing the training and motivation of new Afghan recruits. So one would think that Army headquarters at the Pentagon would be rushing the best trainers out to Afghanistan. But that isn’t happening as quickly as it might, according to some. Here is where Obama can be helpful. He can make it known his first day in office that one of his highest priorities is getting trainers to Afghanistan. That will give the Army the incentive it needs to expedite this process.

But there is a larger question: who will finance this enlarged Afghan army that really should grow to roughly the size of Iraq’s? Given that: 1) Afghanistan is a war supported by our NATO allies; 2) that countries like India, Saudi Arabia, and Russia all have a stake in a non-radical and stable Afghanistan; and 3) that U.S. forces have done the lion’s share of the fighting, these countries should be willing to pay for this benefit.

But it is unclear that they are. Here is where Obama needs to enter the fray early on. He is going to have enormous political capital his first months in office. During the U.S. election I was in India, which is a place where, because of the dramatic development in bilateral relations under his administration, President George W. Bush is not unpopular. But Obama’s election electrified India with hope. Not only is Obama’s transformative power abroad not to be exaggerated, but he will probably add to his political capital initially with symbolic gestures like – as has been reported likely – closing Guantanomo Bay and giving a major speech to the Islamic world in a Moslem capital. Obama needs to start spending this capital. And he should start by pressuring allies to help out more in Afghanistan, with more troops and more money.

In short, Obama needs to boil Afghanistan down to a number of factors where his pressure and influence can directly and dramatically help, and then apply himself immediately. Jump-starting Afghanistan and nurturing Iraq in its year of elections in 2009 should hopefully give him the space he needs to bear down on the problems of the U.S. economy.