Wednesday, April 1, 2009

AfPak: Much Review About Nothing

I've been struggling with how to express my opinion on the "new" Afghanistan and Pakistan, or AfPak, policy President Obama rolled out last Friday. Frankly I haven't commented on it because my initial comments remain valid, and not a whole lot else needs to be said. Despite all the reviews and events on Afghanistan (and I'm not even attending or writing about close to all of them) the policy that was rolled out isn't very different from the existing policy. Granted the Bush Administration never clearly stated its policy, so it is certainly helpful to have the objectives laid out clearly, but the new policy is an adjustment, not a course shift. Other than that I do have a few observations:
1) In the debate over whether to pursue a minimalist counter terrorism (CT) approach, as apparently favored by Vice President Biden, or a more intensive counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy the objectives (protecting U.S. interests by eliminating AfPak as a base of operations for terrorists groups) are primarily CT, but many of the tools come from the COIN playbook. The President chose a middle ground, pleasing everyone, or no one. As Ashley Tellis said at today's event, "what we are involved in is nation building in everything but name."
2) The President frequently mentioned the problems facing and emanating from Pakistan and discussed the need to convince Pakistan to help out more, but I didn't see or hear any real plan to do so.
3) The much-hyped benchmarks either don't exist yet, or are not being made public. Good reasons do exist for not making them all public, including my skepticism over whether they will be met, but even a general discussion of what kinds of things to look at would have been useful.
4) I think his main audience in discussing Pakistan was Congress, and in that he should be successful, as Senator Kerry has proposed an even larger aid package to Pakistan than the one Biden proposed last year when he was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee--at least $1.6 billion a year.
I, like the neocons, am happy the President didn't decide to pull the plug. South and Central Asia is going to be one of the crucial regions in the world for at least the next decade. I think that most of the things in the report are good, and it is certainly good to have them available in black and white rather than a directionless and open-ended commitment. But calling the new strategy bold, revolutionary, or even very different is a step too far.

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