President Obama announced his new Afghanistan strategy on Friday – the traditional Washington day for burying things. But there weren’t any big surprises. The administration had been dribbling details out through the news media: more troops, more civilians, narrower goals. As for "narrowing the goals" in his speech, Obama had it both ways: He asserted, "we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future" and "we are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future," while striking out against an assumed threat of a "return to Taliban rule," and insisting that al-Qaeda terrorists "would accompany the core Taliban leadership," which arguably implies that the set of US goals may not have narrowed very much, and that the US is indeed still trying to control Afghanistan and dictate its future.
It is widely recognized that sending more people – whether soldiers or civilians – is very unlikely in itself to change anything fundamental because the order of magnitude is wrong. The United States has not been, is not, and almost certainly never will be willing and able to commit the resources, which would be necessary to transform Afghanistan into a peaceful "democracy" according to the present policy. The most that could be plausibly hoped for is that additional resources would help make a new policy work: a new policy based on a fundamental, political shift in US policy, including accommodation with the bulk of the political forces now backing Afghanistan’s various insurgencies.
And, therefore, it matters little in the big scheme of things how many new troops President Obama announces. If there is no real change in policy, new troops won’t accomplish anything. If there is a real change in policy, any success will be due much more to the policy change than to the "troop surge" under the cover of which the policy change takes place.
What finally matters are the answers to four questions that are only now beginning to be asked.
1. Will the United States support political negotiations between the Afghan government and leaders of Afghanistan’s insurgencies?
It’s wonderful that President Obama supports outreach to "moderate Taliban" and "low-level fighters" and insurgents that are "only fighting for money." But that’s not going to end the war. A narrow, circumscribed understanding of "reconciliation" was already the Bush policy. Outreach to "moderate Taliban" will only make a significant difference if it turns out to be the "camel’s nose under the tent" for a broader process of political engagement that draws in leaders of Afghanistan’s insurgencies and the political forces backing them.
"Support" is fundamentally different from "tolerate": Talks between Afghan officials and insurgent leaders are already underway; the US can’t stop them from taking place and isn’t trying to. But the US can ensure that such talks can’t accomplish anything meaningful by refusing to cooperate. Just as any meaningful peace process is going to eventually result in guarantees by insurgent leaders not to engage in, support or facilitate military operations inside or outside of Afghanistan, so any meaningful peace process is eventually going to result in binding constraints on US military operations and detentions. The Afghan government, at present, has almost no control over US military operations and detentions. So, for talks to be meaningful, the US has to cooperate.
Western officials have conceded that it was a mistake to exclude leaders of the former government from the post-2001 political process in Afghanistan. It’s long past time to correct this mistake.
2. Is the United States prepared to discuss its long-term intentions in Afghanistan?
As was previously the case in Iraq, it’s currently an article of dogma that you’re not allowed to say the words "timetable" or "timeline." (Although Representatives Lee, Waters and Woolsey appear to have recently broken the taboo.) There’s no good reason for this situation to continue. In the case of Iraq, "timetable" moved from "unthinkable" to "commonplace" to "provision of signed agreement."
Similarly, there’s been almost no discussion of "permanent military bases," in contrast to Iraq, where critics of the war – Iraqi and American – put the Bush administration on the defensive, early and often, on this key point.
The sooner the idea of a total withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan at some point in the future becomes an allowed topic of discussion, the sooner greater space will open for negotiated solutions, since it is widely conceded that the most important motivation for the insurgencies is the presence of foreign troops.
3. Is the United States prepared to relax the political constraints it has previously imposed on Afghan negotiations?
A standard formulation has been: "we support reconciliation with insurgents who are prepared to accept the Afghan Constitution." There is nothing sacred about the Afghan Constitution. If changing the Afghan Constitution would help end the war, then changing the Afghan Constitution should not be ruled out of consideration. If someone says, "I’m not going to stop fighting until the Afghan Constitution says that Western music is against Islam," then, if you wish, you can say, O.K., keep fighting. But there’s no good reason to rule proposed changes as out of bounds for discussion. Indeed, there are two specific reasons for considering changes to the Afghan Constitution: one, supporters of Afghanistan’s insurgencies were excluded from the process that produced it; two, the present Constitution enshrines elements of centralization, which are widely considered key obstacles to effective local governance and stability.
4. Is the United States prepared to address the political roots of Pakistan’s relationship with the Afghan insurgencies?
US officials are regularly quoted saying that the insurgencies in Afghanistan cannot be effectively addressed without addressing the support these insurgencies draw from Pakistan, including from elements in Pakistan linked to the Pakistani military. But discussions of the role of the Pakistani military are generally limited to exhortations to the Pakistani government and military to "do more" to confront insurgents, without addressing the motivations for the Pakistani government and military to "do less," even though it is conceded that powerful elements in Pakistan see their relationships with insurgent groups as essential elements of national self-defense in their long confrontation with India.
But if you recognize the importance of that, then you should aggressively pursue two things that the US is not doing now, or is doing too little, too timidly and too slowly: one, you would try to help elements of the Pakistani state that are linked to insurgent groups use those relationships to pursue political solutions, so those Pakistani players could cease playing a destructive role without losing their chits; two, you would be aggressively using your influence to resolve Pakistan-India conflicts, so as to reduce the motivation for those elements in Pakistan to maintain those kinds of chits.
But to really pursue that last point would mean that you would have to end the taboo against talking about Kashmir and that might well annoy India, which generally regards Kashmir as "nobody else’s business." It’s tempting before reflection to think that "we have enough problems," but as Obama administration officials have recognized, the problem of Kashmir and Pakistan’s relationship to Afghanistan is inextricably linked, and if assertive US leadership towards India-Pakistan peace might save the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan, wouldn’t it be worth pursuing?
Robert Naiman is senior policy analyst at Just Foreign Policy.