Where is the Change President when it comes to Afghanistan? In President Obama’s first 100 days, we have seen more U.S. raids and air strikes that kill innocent Afghan civilians, fueling animosity toward the U.S. as violence is up 79 percent across Afghanistan when compared to the same period last year. We have heard calls for 21,000 additional troops and tens of billions more in war funding. What we haven’t heard are clearly defined goals, an exit strategy, benchmarks to measure progress, and a timetable for withdrawal. What we haven’t seen is a President willing to break with his predecessor on Afghanistan by prioritizing regional diplomacy and humanitarian aid above military escalation. Here’s why Obama gets a ‘D’ for his first 100 days in Afghanistan.
President Obama made his intentions for this war known even before taking office. He referred to Afghanistan as the “good war” and the “central front to the war on terror.” Even more alarming than this rhetoric was Obama’s decision to surround himself with hawkish holdovers from the Bush era: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Adm. Mike Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. David Kilcullen, and Gen. David McKiernan. This team has thus far dashed any hopes of a more sophisticated approach toward Middle East foreign policy as they continue to militarize a political problem.
President Obama’s stated goal of escalating this war in order to prevent Afghanistan from regressing into terrorist “safe haven” is highly dubious. As John Mueller, an Ohio State Political Science Professor and author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them, recently suggested, the Obama administration is greatly overplaying the dangers posed by al Qaeda and militant Taliban members in Afghanistan. If and when we negotiate with moderate elements of the Taliban, they will be unlikely to allow al Qaeda to operate within Afghanistan and risk another U.S. military intervention. And a negotiated settlement, as foreign policy experts like Leslie Gelb have argued, seems to be our best option in Afghanistan, as long as it arrives with strong international pressure and economic incentives. What’s more, according to Carnegie Endowment’s Gilles Dorronsoro, the increased presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is the primary reason for the Taliban insurgency, while withdrawing troops would enable us to focus on capturing al Qaeda terrorists in the region. In other words, a broad counter-insurgency will negate legitimate counter-terrorism efforts.
To be fair, the Obama administration has shown a willingness to reach out to moderate Taliban. President Obama has also made promises of humanitarian and development aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan (which is why I give Obama a ‘D’ instead of an outright ‘F’). But throughout the past 100 days, Obama has repeatedly undercut his best diplomatic intentions with calls for military escalation. Holding a comprehensive Af-Pak strategy review showed an attempt at a well-reasoned approach, but Obama put the cart before the horse by requesting an additional 17,000 soldiers before completing the review. Bringing Ambassador Richard Holbrooke into the mix was a smart move, but Holbrooke’s diplomacy was stymied when the head of Pakistan’s intelligence refused to meet with him (and another Pakistani minister publicly admonished him) over U.S. predator drone attacks. And promising economic aid was a step in the right direction, but not when the amount was dwarfed by an $83 billion supplemental war funding bill that slates tens times more for expanding military operations.
We are only 100 days into this administration; I would hate to see President Obama’s current path in Afghanistan preclude him from achieving his progressive domestic and economic agenda. Fortunately, Obama, unlike his predecessor, is a born diplomat who welcomes a plurality of opinion. Let’s hope he listens to pressure from activists urging him to Rethink Afghanistan and Get Afghanistan Right. Let’s hope those campaigns lead more people to raise questions critical about the war, and to more Congressional hearings like last week’s before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which featured experts like retired Cnl. Andrew Bacevich and retired Cpl. Rick Reyes voicing their concerns. We don’t want to see the next 100 days in Afghanistan resemble Obama’s first 100.