National Security Network

Memo to the Community: The President’s Afghanistan and Pakistan Strategy: Setting the Strategic Parameters

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Report 30 November 2009

Afghanistan Afghanistan Afghanistan Obama Pakistan

Memo to the Community:

The President’s Afghanistan and Pakistan Strategy:  Setting the Strategic Parameters

From:          The National Security Network

                       Major General Paul Eaton (ret.), Senior Advisor

                       Heather Hurlburt, Executive Director

Tuesday night, President Obama will lay out his Administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Media attention continues to focus on troop numbers and tactical debate over elements of counter-insurgency strategy.  The president’s political opponents, meanwhile, will seek to portray the strategy as dead on arrival if it does not mention “victory” enough times or if it sets out benchmarks toward an eventual end state to American involvement

We at NSN believe, however, that there are more fundamental questions that the strategy must answer and against which it should be judged.  First, what are the vital US national security interests that will be addressed by the President’s plan?  Second, how does the President’s plan address Afghanistan’s political problems, challenges that in the eyes of both civilian and Pentagon leadership are as central as the military ones?  Third, how will the Administration, Congress, the media, and the American people measure progress there, in order to maintain accountability and focus while ensuring that, ultimately, the U.S. can stand down as its regional partners stand up?Because NSN believes that the President’s strategy must be explored in depth, we have defined three strategic parameters for community discussion on Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Beginning tomorrow evening, a group of resident and guest policy experts will provide up-to-the-minute commentary and analysis of the strategy on  We will continue intensified blogging and coverage through the testimony of Administration witnesses scheduled this week and next, aimed at providing both a clear NSN view of events and a variety of informed, thought-provoking policy and political analysis.  As always, we welcome your feedback and views.

1)    Define U.S. National Security Interests

For seven years, U.S. policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan has been adrift, suffering from little strategic direction, and lacking a stated justification rooted in America’s core interests. Continuing down this road is unsustainable.  If the President hopes to draw support for his strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he must break with this trend.  He should address what ramifications further instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan would have for a wider region that hosts Russia, China and India, and connect those concerns to American interests.  Most importantly, he should articulate a clear objective for U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, rooted in basic U.S. interests, and which advances the security of the American people. 

Explain the objectives comprising that strategy, and why it is critical that they be achieved in order to secure the main goal.

Prominent administration officials have said that to achieve the core U.S. objectives for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. strategy should address a wider range of challenges facing the region.  This emphasis on a comprehensive approach is laudable given the linkages between core security concerns and issues such as governance, development, and the rule of law.  At the same time, outside experts and commentators have cautioned that the U.S. not let efforts in these areas creep beyond the overall imperative of advancing the security of the American people.  When he addresses the nation, the President should distinguish between what the U.S. would like to accomplish in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and what it must accomplish to advance the overall goal, and preserve the security of the American people.

Give our military and civilians a clear mission.

The right U.S. strategy depends on giving our people on the ground the benefit of clear guidance about their mission. The men and women tasked with implementing the President’s strategy – both military and civilian - must have an explanation of what operations the U.S. will be performing in the region, how those operations fit together, and how those operations relate to the overall strategy.  In language as precise as possible, the President should spell out the duties of U.S. military and civilian personnel, why those duties are necessary for the sake of achieving key operational objectives, and how those duties fit within the effort to secure the main strategic objectives.

2)    Put Afghan Politics at Center Stage

The re-election of Hamid Karzai as President of Afghanistan, which came amidst widespread evidence of fraud, highlighted the immense challenge posed by internal Afghan politics.

Administration officials, both military and civilian, have said that threat posed by continued political turmoil and dysfunction outweighs even the security threat posed by the Taliban.  They are backed by progressives, who over the last several months have fought to shift attention away from a narrow focus on troops to an approach that puts local, national and regional politics at the center.  Without such focus, no strategy for Afghanistan can succeed, and the broader region, particularly Pakistan will suffer.

Developing a political solution for Afghanistan is a daunting challenge, complicated by a partner government which lacks legitimacy, weak connections between the national authority in Kabul and Afghanistan’s provinces, a fierce tradition of local autonomy, and an effort by the insurgency to set up a parallel system of government.  U.S. knowledge is limited, and its capacity to influence Afghan politics is greatly constrained.

An effective U.S. strategy must deal with Afghan politics at all levels, from the central government in Kabul down to the village level, and including the larger region, particularly Pakistan.  It must also recognize that even though attention to this area is vital, any lasting solutions will depend on the agreement and leadership of the Afghans.  It is crucial that in tomorrow’s speech, the President situate U.S. efforts to support a political solution at the center of his strategy.

3)    Define the End-Game Through Benchmarks, Metrics and Accountability

Much of the lost ground over the past seven years came because the previous administration lost track of its goals, failed to enunciate a desired end state, and had little internal or external oversight to catch and correct its deficiencies.  It is time to break with the past.

A sound strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan should recognize that conducting oversight, establishing metrics, and laying down benchmarks is fundamental for the success of U.S. policy. Without judicious scrutiny, the Afghan government will slide further into corruption and ineffectiveness.  Without clear data, the Administration will be unable to tell whether its shift in approach is having its desired impact, putting the mission at risk of blind escalation.  And without benchmarks, the critical task of transitioning responsibility to Afghans will suffer.

Tracking progress and defining an end-state to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan also have domestic repercussions.  Eight years into the war, Congress and the American people have every reason to demand demonstrable progress and express uncertainty about whether a mission that was downgraded for so long has truly been worth the sacrifice.

For too long U.S. policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan has run off course, neglecting persistent problems caused by inattention and mismanagement because of an overall lack of accountability.  To break with the past, the President must deliver on his promises to use benchmarks and metrics to help define the end-game for U.S. involvement in the region.