Today, the Obama administration released its strategy review of the war in Afghanistan. The review shows fragile progress in the military campaign against the Taliban, as well as robust actions against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan - but has less to say about civilian and political milestones. Over recent months, a consensus has quietly emerged among experts across the centrist-realist-progressive spectrum on a way forward in Afghanistan. This consensus recognizes the importance of military gains but promotes the primacy of political efforts, looks ahead to a military drawdown and promises to be more effective, more sustainable - and less costly. This fall, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for American Progress, the Afghanistan Study Group and the Center for a New American Security all issued reports on Afghanistan that - perhaps surprisingly - largely agreed on the eight central points below.
This week Capitol Hill, the White House and national media have been largely focused on two national security issues: ratification of the New START treaty and repeal of the Pentagon's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy. START, which has the broad support of a wide range of national security experts, is awaiting ratification in the Senate. Meanwhile, the Pentagon released a report this week that surveyed military personnel about on the effects of repealing DADT, finding that "the risk of repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell to overall military effectiveness is low." Throughout the week, bipartisan military and national security experts as well as public polls continue to affirm the strong support for both ratification of the New START treaty and repeal of DADT.
Tomorrow, more than 10 million Afghans will participate in the elections for the lower house of Parliament, the Wolesi Jirga - the first Afghan national election since the flawed and controversial presidential election last year. As in the past, experts and military commanders expect to see a "surge in violence" to coincide with the vote, often with symbols of the elections as the specific targets.
Afghan authorities have made some real and meaningful electoral reforms over the past year that have resulted in positive improvements on the ground. But serious obstacles remain, including voter disenfranchisement, a lack of political parties, fraud and disillusionment. Against this backdrop, a robust debate is taking place in Washington and across America on the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and our strategy in the region.
Yesterday in the Rose Garden, President Obama displayed the leadership qualities that helped put him in office. By accepting the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal and replacing him with CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus, the President disposed of an unnecessary, potentially compromising distraction at a time of war. He also reinforced the integrity of our time-honored tradition of civilian rule over the military. These moves garnered immediate support from across the political spectrum.
After more than two weeks of operations, the military offensive in Marja has begun to wind down. The coalition of American, international and Afghan forces appears to have succeeded in its initial goal of seizing territory from the Taliban, a first step in the larger effort to constrain the insurgency's movement and limit its effectiveness. At the same time, the first phase of the operation has introduced and exposed new challenges, including significant civilian displacement and humanitarian issues as well as problems with the professionalism of Afghan security forces.
Afghanistan remains critical to the security of the United States and the region. But after years of neglect by the Bush administration the situation in Afghanistan is dire; regional experts, progressives and foreign policy realists are voicing important questions about whether, how and to what end the situation can be turned around. The Obama administration is engaging skeptics, as it seeks to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy. Unfortunately, largely absent from the debate is a credible voice among the conservative opposition in Congress, now dominated by neoconservative thinking. Their calls for a massive, never-ending military commitment reflect the same misguided thinking and over-militarized approach that we saw over the last eight years. This conflict is not one that will simply be “won” by sending in more troops; instead, a positive outcome is dependent on diplomatic, political, and developmental efforts. The President must unveil realistic goals and expectations for American involvement and advance the implementation of a comprehensive strategy that is in line with America’s broader national security interests.