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Smart People React to Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan Speech

One of the joys of Internet journalism is that when a piece is too long to incorporate every intelligent perspective from smart analysts, you can just peel some off and put it on the blog. So here are a few reactions I couldn’t fit into my wrap piece but are still worth your while.

Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told me he worries about the timeline’s impact on Afghans:

Afghans will be worried about the “18 months” and will think this means we’re getting out. However, President couldn’t say much less to Americans; indefinite stay would be too much to sustain. However, he was not clear about what 18 months means. What I have heard from State/DOD/WH briefing today was that goals were condition based. if/if President sticks to the line that this is a goal, not a time line, that changes will be rigorously conditions based and not an automatic trip wire, and that we will move to “overwatch”, not out until Afghans can handle the problem then we can reassure Afghans over time. There are no words that will solve the problem, only actions will have meaning to Afghans. If we keep talking only about how we’re getting out in 18 months Afghans will look to how they survive rather than put their support into serving.

Haidar Mullick, a fellow at the U.S. Joint Special Operations University who recently returned from a tour of India and Pakistan, emailed to say he thinks Obama’s approach to Afghanistan is insufficient and his approach to Pakistan is faulty at best:

President Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy is “disrupt now defeat later,” a clever counterterrorism and counterinsurgency hybrid devoid of costly nation-building — enough to weaken Taliban and al-Qaeda in the next 18 months but not enough to stop their return in the next five years, keeping Afghanistan in a precarious cycle of state failure, civil war and regional proxy wars. The message is clear: America will disrupt and dismantle Al Qaeda and worry about defeating it at a more opportune time — perhaps after Obama’s reelection and when the economy recovers. On balance it hopes to deter bleeding but ignores long-term infection.

Obama’s Pakistan strategy makes me even less optimistic and perplexed. Noting that the real threat comes from nuclear-armed Pakistan vulnerability to al-Qaeda, President Obama still falls short of a comprehensive regional policy. For example, there was little mention of sustaining Pakistan’s gains against the Taliban and augmenting its capacity in combination with Pakistani and Indian ‘influence-sharing’ in Afghanistan. Overall it promises partnership sans strategic guidance.

But the counterinsurgency luminaries at the Center for a New American Security, generally speaking, are happy. Nathaniel Fick, the young CEO of the influential think tank, said in a statement that he hopes Obama won’t fall in love with his own strategy:

The President has chosen the best of his bad options in Afghanistan by clarifying U.S. objectives there, bolstering international commitment to the mission, and signaling American resolve. What is most important over the next year is altering the perceived trajectory and momentum of the war–in the eyes of Americans, our allies, the enemy, and most of all, the Afghan people. Balancing resolve with flexibility is key: the U.S. has many interests around the world, and so must avoid succumbing to strategic distraction. If the President and his advisors can avoid falling in love with their plan — remaining realists focused on U.S. interests and what’s achievable — then executing this strategy well offers the best chance of stability in Afghanistan and South Asia.

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