Barack Obama officially launched the new strategy for Afghanistan on December 1st at the military academy of West Point. The main guidelines of the new strategy were already included in the “ISAF Commander’s Counterinsurgency Guidance” drafted in August by General Stanley McChrystal, the double-hatted commander of Enduring Freedom and the NATO-ISAF mission. The announcement has put an end to months of controversy over the reluctance of the new US President to give the green light to the deployment of 30.000 more troops in Afghanistan as McChrystal had firmly required. According to some critics, Obama’s hesitancy was attributable to the fear of losing consensus both among public opinion, increasingly impatient with the war, and the Democratic Party, where the liberal wing is advocating a radical change in foreign policy after the Bush’s years. According to others opinions, Obama decided to wait for the outcome of the elections in Afghanistan to figure out which candidate would have been his main political counterpart in implementing the new strategy, as well as the arrival of the Winter to allow the Allied troops to adjust to McChrystal’s directives in a time frame where hostilities are usually less intense. Whatever the case might be, Obama often gave the impression of wanting to dissociate himself from the conflict and from the responsibilities related to the role of Commander in Chief. All that, even if he had bet most of his credibility on the success in Afghanistan, the “war of necessity” that since the electoral campaign he has been repeatedly opposing to the “war of choice” in Iraq mistakenly waged by Bush.
In sum, Obama seems to show the desire to lay down weapons rather than keep on fighting. His attitude and rhetoric have not helped boost so far American people’s confidence in the possibility of a victory, while they are supposedly much appreciated by the untamed insurgency. Every sign of weakness coming from the enemy’s home front reinvigorates the Talibans and al-Qaeda, strengthening the belief that in the end they will succeed in kicking the US out of Afghanistan, like the USSR in the Eighties. Therefore, the psychological factor continues to play in favor of the insurgents and this is further complicating McChrystal’s work. The Allies are supposed to wrest the initiative (the so-called “operational inertia”) to the guerrilla in order to break their tactical superiority and finally convince the population (the “center of gravity” of operations) that the international presence is its unique and reliable security provider. To this end, given the war theater’s size and imperviousness, the surge of troops would ensure a better cover and control of the territory, while a renewed civilian-military effort for increasing socio-economic development and improving people’s standards of living is indispensable to deprive guerrilla of its major source of recruitment. Yet, men and women engaged in Afghanistan need to be supported from their leadership in accomplishing such demanding tasks, not demoralized.
Moreover, it is hardly deniable that the date set in the new strategy for the start of troops’ withdrawal (July 2011) is in tune only with the Obama’s internal political agenda and not with the actual situation on the ground. Obama seems to be already projected to the campaign for the next presidential elections (November 2012) and the beginning of the end in Afghanistan might be a useful achievement to conquer a second tenure at the White House. Nonetheless, it is incorrect to talk about an “exit strategy”, as Obama already did several times. Rather, NATO officials and experts explain that the keyword of the new strategy is “transition”. Following the Iraqi example, the objective is to proceed with the transfer of leadership and ownership to the Afghan authorities in maintaining security and stability, so as to pull out the Allied troops accordingly.
Unfortunately, the police and local security forces’ capabilities are still backward and they continue to be heavily dependent on the Allies in carrying out their functions. At the same time, the lack of governance by the legitimate central authorities has not helped the process of stabilization and institution building. The figure of President Hamid Karzai – confirmed in his post despite the scandal of the manipulated elections – is illustrative of the weakness of the Afghan institutions. In this domain, there are other interconnected challenges undermining the efforts toward stabilization, such as the endemic corruption, the drug cultivation and trafficking, the civilian casualties’ question as well as the negative influence of neighboring Pakistan, where the enemy shrines are mostly located, and Iran, where the Khomeinist regime has escalated the destabilization of the whole Greater Middle East in response to its growing international isolation.
As a consequence, the US and NATO’s presence in Afghanistan will remain a long-term commitment. The secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, clearly pointed out that “[The US] will keep a significant number of forces there for a considerable period of time after that date”, while the speed of the withdrawal and transfer of security responsibility to the local forces will depend on “the conditions on the ground.” In other words, in Afghanistan there is an end state, but not an end date. From this point of view, July 2011 is less a deadline than a date in which the allied will assess the upshots of the new strategy and decide to take further steps accordingly. Meanwhile, the Afghan authorities will be urged to accelerate progress in the relevant fields and thus the pace of transition by that time.
The main recipient of this sense of urgency is President Karzai. During his first term, he disappointed the high expectations of the international community and for this reason he has lost the unconditional trust of the Allies. Nonetheless, he resisted the discredit campaign against him in occasion of the election and eventually managed to hold its position. The result is that the Allies still have to rely on him for fighting corruption and inefficiency as well as boosting institution building and reconstruction. Therefore, July 2011 will also be the time for checking whether Karzai will have finally gain to concrete achievements or not.
One of the major challenge awaiting the Afghan President is the “reconciliation” and “reintegration” policy toward the insurgents and war lords. A pillar of the new strategy is to convince the elements not ideologically committed and the so-called shadow governors to reconnect to the social and political environment, while persuading those imbued with Islamic fundamentalism to lay down their weapons. This is not a novelty introduced by Obama. The dialogue with “moderate” Talibans has been initiated by the late Bush with Karzai’s backing and Saudi Arabia’s mediation. In the same vein, the idea to reshape the Afghan strategy dates back to Bush, who had clearly shown before leaving the stage the intention to move the energies “saved” from the Iraqi front to the stabilization of Afghanistan.
On the other side of the Atlantic, however, despite the warm welcomes to the Obama’s election, the attitude of the European countries has not changed compared to the Bush years. Aside from the United Kingdom, their contribution in Afghanistan remains underneath their actual means and capabilities, with a particular reference to the most powerful countries of the continent: France and Germany. Pleas from the White House for an increasing commitment in terms of troops and risk sharing on the ground went mostly unheeded, proving that the discomfort toward Bush was merely a pretext to justify their unwillingness to increase their contribute to the Euro-Atlantic and international security. After having appealed for a cooperative approach in his speech at the United Nations (a message also oriented to Russia and China), perhaps even Obama now has realized that even if “America alone solve cannot world’s problem”, it is compelled to make it.