US President-elect Barack Obama is considering a sweeping overhaul of Washington's approach to the war in Afghanistan, according to a report in the Washington Post, which cited advisors close to the incoming chief executive. The new approach would seem to place heavy emphasis on diplomacy and negotiations.
The Obama administration would refocus attention on efforts to capture Al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, and would seek to institutionalize a regional approach on stabilizing Afghanistan, potentially exploring cooperation with Iran. It also would look favorably on Afghan government efforts to engage moderate Taliban elements in an effort to divide the insurgency, the Post report on November 11 suggested.
Whatever the policy changes made by the Obama administration when it takes over in January, the challenges in Afghanistan will be daunting, according to participants in a panel discussion, held November 6 in Washington, DC, sponsored by the US Institute of Peace.
One of the panelists, Maj. Gen. Peter Gilchrist -- now the British defense attachÃ© in Washington, but who previously served as deputy commander of Combined Forces command Afghanistan -- urged the Obama administration, along with all other coalition governments, to "get out of the 'short-termism' brought about by the election cycles."
Despite the importance of combating the insurgency, the Afghan population should be recognized as the "center of gravity," Gilchrist asserted. The general public in the West needs to understand that "this is not about killing our way to victory," he said. "At a tactical level, the Taliban can't win. But they can win at a strategic level if we don't get our act together" by strengthening the performance of Afghanistan's security, political, and economic institutions.
Gilchrist said the new US administration has "a real chance for changing some of the dynamics, and to persuade the international community to pull in behind a comprehensive approach." Even so, he urged the Obama administration not to berate American allies in public for failing to supply more troops to the cause. Instead, the new White House team should more realistically encourage other governments to provide more non-military assistance. "The worst thing we could do is to go and to secure the whole of Afghanistan [with troops] and then have no reconstruction [aid] coming in. ... We've done that for, I think, the last seven years" with poor results," the general said.
For this reason, Gilchrist said Afghanistan reconstruction efforts require "better coordination and a better-organized structure in the international community to allow the Afghans to build the capabilities that they require to be able to rule their own country." Putting such a system in place, he cautioned, would "take some time."
As far as the Afghan population was concerned, the strategic objective ought to remain the same, according to another panelist, Ali Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister. He said the international community, working with the Afghan government, needed to "free people from fear of the insurgents, terrorists, drug traffickers, criminals, corrupt government officials, and, at the same time, free them from want--provide job opportunities for people, services, good governance, and the rule of law."
Jalali suggested it may prove more difficult to curb corruption that to thwart the insurgency. Containing graft will be especially difficult because a "mentality of survival" prevails in the country, he said. Success would require ending the "fragmentation of security institutions - the army, police, justice, and intelligence agencies," he added.
Mark Sedra, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, stressed that "security-sector reform is the exit strategy for the international community." Sedra acknowledged a lack of progress regarding this issue, which he attributed to both insufficient resources (such as money and mentors) and some serious conceptual flaws. "The process has mainly been framed as a train-and-equip program," when what has been needed was a more comprehensive "look at the security sector [that] specifically emphasizes governance."
Sedra also warned about a persistent "justice gap." In his view, "the justice sector has not received the requisite attention it needs. It has only received a tiny fraction of the money that has been allocated to the security sector as a whole." In addition, the foreign donors that sponsor various justice reform programs often have "no coherent strategy."
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.