Sunday, December 06, 2009

Steve Coll on stakes and strategy in AfPak (FP)

Just before Obama's Afghanistan speech last Tuesday (December 1), Foreign Policy posted this on-line discussion about the stakes, prospects, and politico-strategic options in Afghanistan and Pakistan:
Every week or so, the New America Foundation and Politico host online chats on a variety of hot topics. This week's featured New America Foundation president and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steve Coll [JW: also a New Yorker staff writer] talking about Afghanistan on the day of President Obama's long-awaited, much anticipated speech on a new strategy for the region. Excerpts of the chat are below; check out the full transcript here.
That full transcript is worth reading, but a few selected bits are below.

Even from these snippets, certain important themes emerge. Some people argue that if the US simply walks away from Afghanistan now, as it did after 1989, the consequences will be no big deal. Coll argues that this complacent belief is probably wrong--and that the consequences with respect to Pakistan, in particular, would probably be significantly bad. (For a little further elaboration, see a piece by Coll in November asking "What If We Fail in Afghanistan?")

On the other hand, Coll emphasizes the extent to which all these matters are complex and uncertain. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the difficulties are deeply rooted and intractable, the leverage of outsiders is inherently limited, and one can't pronounce with confidence about either the viability or the effects of different policies. For example, going back to Pakistan, abandoning the US commitment to Afghanistan would almost certainly have disastrous political results in Pakistan (with consequences for the whole area)--but it's possible that continued US commitment to the anti-Taliban struggle might also promote bad consequences.

Coll also zeroes in nicely on the way that Obama and his administration needs to simultaneously address and respond to a range of different constituencies, in the US and AfPak--and why this requires simultaneously sending different messages are not just in tension, but potentially contradictory.

=> Pakistan & Afghanistan:
James: Given that most of the al Qaeda leadership are in Pakistan, do you expect that this surge of troops in southern Afghanistan will have any effect on Pakistan?

Steve Coll: It will definitely have effects on Pakistan. The question is what kinds of effects. Some Pakistanis worry about blow-back of more Taliban and refugees pouring onto their side of the border. That is a risk. On the other hand, American commitment to the Pakistani state and to the reduction of the revolutionary threat posed by the Taliban might reinforce those in Pakistan -- in the army and the civilian government -- who think the time might have come to abandon their "Frankenstein"-like policy of supporting Islamist militias. [....] The Pakistan Army has historically supported groups like the Taliban because it sees them as essential, along with a nuclear deterrent, to an asymmetrical defense against much larger India, which Pakistan regards as determined to weaken or destroy Pakistan. Now sections of the Pakistani elites, faced with their own revolutionary Taliban, are questioning whether the benefits of allies like the Taliban are outstripped by the costs. Here the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States and India actually have a common interest--to persuade Pakistan to abandon its support for these groups and pursue its legitimate security goals by other means. American failure in Afghanistan would almost guarantee failure of this project in Pakistan.

=> Political dilemmas & contradictions in Afghanistan:
Afghanistan's most successful period of modern politics occurred between the late 1920s and the late 1960s. The country was very poor but it managed a sustainable, multi-ethnic system of governance that included a role for a weak central government and diverse regional powers--some tribal, some other--backed by a national Army.
[JW: The problem, as any Burkean conservative can tell you, is that it's easier to blow such a system apart--something that, in Afghanistan, began in the 1970s with Daoud Khan's 1973 coup against the monarchy and was completed over the course of the 1980s and 1990s--than to put it back together again.]
The present circumstances are different--huge flows of international money and support tend to seek and even require a strong central government. But the model I elude to is probably more plausible. It's a balance between central and local authorities. That's more plausible than wishing for a central government that can deliver presence and justice in every nook and valley of this mountainous country. [....]
[JW: And to complicate matters further ...]
There does not seem to be a unity of view in the U.S. government about how to balance the expediency of warlords and "security" verses the imperative of a sustainable Afghan politics. I think on balance the election and the appalling corruption in Karzai's government has shaken assumptions in Washington on this score, but at the same time, nobody is going to punish Gul Agha Sherzai, for example, the lord of all he surveys in Jalalabad, because his methods fail to conform to political science textbooks. So [those] contradictions [...] are likely to persist, and they may undermine U.S. strategy.
=> Obama's inescapable political dilemmas:
I worry that it's hard to send two messages at once -- on the one hand, signaling resolve to fence-sitters and adversaries in the region, and on the other hand, signaling weary American voters that you have a plan to come home. But I recognize that American politics offers the President little choice in this respect. And I am hopeful that the "exit" rhetoric and signaling can be used to leverage positive behavior by Karzai and other Afghan participants in the conflict. There is no exit strategy for Pakistan, and as long as the president makes that clear, he might be able to finesse this communications challenge over the next few years. But it's a worry.
Hoping for the best (though not optimistically),
Jeff Weintraub