Obama's High-Risk Afghan Policy

Given its long gestation and complex political messaging, perhaps it was inevitable that the Obama administration's "overview" of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan would bury the lede. On the top of page five, the unclassified portion of the review released this morning provides a succinct summary of the razor's edge American forces walk at nearly the 10-year mark in the Afghan war.

"While the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, these gains remain fragile and reversible," the review notes. It says consolidating those gains requires significant additional progress in eliminating extremist sanctuaries in Pakistan, successfully transferring areas cleared of insurgents to Afghan security forces, and building transparent and relatively uncorrupt institutions of Afghan governance to hold the whole enterprise together.

As the review makes clear, the July 2011 date to begin withdrawing U.S. forces and the 2014 deadline for transferring full security responsibility to Afghan forces (which NATO adopted last month) essentially delineate the four-year timeframe for achieving those long wished-for goals.

"I'm more optimistic than I've ever been about Afghanistan, but because so much time has passed and the allies and Afghan people are getting so weary of this war, the window for succeeding is getting constantly narrower and the stakes and risks of failure are rising," said a senior defense official familiar with the review. The need to start transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces as soon as early next year in some areas, as outlined in the review, makes their learning curve that much steeper. "That just adds to the risk of what is already a risky strategy," the official said.

As the review reflects, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan, which now includes about 100,000 U.S. combat troops, has almost certainly achieved enough tactical progress in the country to buy himself political breathing room in Washington until a "conditions-based" drawdown begins next July. With a surge of 80,000 additional allied forces in the past two years, and a tripling of deployed U.S. civilians, the review reflects Petraeus's belief that the "counterinsurgency math" finally adds up. ISAF under his command has arrested the momentum of Taliban insurgents in many parts of the country, according to the review, and reversed it in key strongholds such as Helmand and Kandahar Provinces in the south. Perhaps most hopefully, Afghan security forces have made significant strides--exceeding their recruitment goals, improving training, and contributing significantly to recent operations in the south.

Without specifically mentioning the Obama administration's dramatic increase in unmanned "drone" strikes in Pakistan's lawless tribal belt, the review claims that al-Qaida's core leadership in the region is "weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001," with its ranks significantly depleted and its ability to plot attacks disrupted. The review likewise touts groundwork laid for a true "strategic partnership" with Pakistan, noting that Pakistani security forces have taken action in six out of seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas near the border.

Read beneath the surface of the review, however, and the overriding challenge for the Obama administration is clear. The passage of time has largely bled the Afghan war of its margins of error. Indeed, if this review were released in 2005 instead of five years later, its description of tactical gains on the ground in Afghanistan and the careful groundwork laid for improving U.S.-Pakistan cooperation might constitute a good news story. As it is, the review highlights a high-risk enterprise whose two strategic imperatives--eliminating insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan and helping build viable and sustainable institutions of Afghan governance--remain largely unmet.

"The insurgent sanctuaries remain perhaps the biggest risk factor for failure, because historically there's a close correlation between successful insurgencies and safe havens that allow them to regroup and plan future attacks," said the senior defense official, who notes that elements of the Pakistani security forces continue to support the Afghan Taliban. "And while we will never free Afghanistan of corruption, the level of corruption in the Karzai government remains another big risk factor because it gets in the way of making the lives of everyday Afghanis better."