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Brandon Friedman

Brandon Friedman

Posted April 29, 2009 | 08:37 AM (EST)

Afghanistan and Pakistan: Obama's First 100 Days


Woody Allen once said "80 percent of success is just showing up." If we translated Allen's words into foreign policy, we'd probably get something like, "80 percent of avoiding catastrophic failure is actively engaging the problems with which you're faced." George W. Bush never got this when it came to Afghanistan and Pakistan--which his administration began ignoring only months after 9/11. And it was the same with John McCain--when his preoccupation with Iraq led him to say we could simply "muddle through" Afghanistan.

President Obama, however, has not been nearly so blind to the deteriorating situation there. For this reason alone, President Barack Obama deserves credit. Within 60 days of his inauguration, the White House had announced a comprehensive plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan, appointed Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to be the region's Special Representative, and hosted the leaders of both Afghanistan and Pakistan in Washington, D.C. for trilateral talks.

Showing up is more than half the battle, and the new administration, in its first hundred days, has clearly moved to address the failing situation in the region. For that, the administration deserves an A grade.

But, in reality, those good intentions will be of little use if the Taliban eventually ride their pickup trucks into Islamabad. So to prevent that, it's going to take skillful implementation on a number of levels. And in this respect, so far, the Obama administration's progress has been more uneven.

There are two facets to the solution in Afghanistan and Pakistan: The military aspect and the civilian one.

The military part of the solution has three purposes of its own. The first is to secure the population from Taliban and al Qaeda interference and to deny those groups safe haven among Afghanistan's cities, town, and villages. The second is to conduct counterterrorism operations. And the third is to train the Afghan military so that it can stand alone--without outside assistance.

Under the Bush administration, this military aspect was always under-resourced in terms of both personnel and equipment. U.S. troops have consistently cleared areas of militants, only to have them return a short time later--after the Americans have left. But Obama is moving to bolster the mission of U.S. troops in the region. He has finally ordered the deployment of the 17,000 troops General McKiernan requested months ago, and he's also ordered that an additional 4,000 troops be sent specifically to train the Afghan security forces.

This is a good start, but, unfortunately, it's not going to be enough to supplement what needs to get done on the civilian side. There still won't be enough U.S. troops in Afghanistan to secure wide swaths of the countryside. When there aren't enough troops on the ground to fill any major college football stadium in America, that says a lot. Similarly, right now, there are currently more police officers in New York City than U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And all the diplomatic, political, humanitarian support we can provide will be worthless if we can't protect those implementing it.

Adding additional forces on the Afghan side of the border is a necessary evil at this point, and for that, the administration is to be commended. But they're still not going far enough. And that, in itself, is extraordinarily dangerous. So on this, I give the administration a grade of C.

The civilian side of the plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan--the diplomatic surge, the political assistance, and the desperately needed humanitarian and development aspect--is ultimately more important than anything the military could ever do. And this is where we have a potentially more serious problem.

After the Obama administration announced its Afghanistan/Pakistan plan last month, Denis McDonough, the director of strategic communications at the National Security Council, held a conference call with bloggers. On the call, I asked him about the "surge" (for lack of a better term) of civilian reconstruction experts into Afghanistan. Specifically, I wanted to know where they would come from. Would they be USAID professionals? State Department foreign service officers? NGOs?

I wanted to know because this is the absolutely crucial piece of cobbling together some sort of successful end state (whatever it may look like) in Afghanistan. When we talk about there being no solely military solution, this is what we mean. Here's how McDonough responded:

MCDONOUGH: State will send "hundreds" that will "deploy this year." We'll have "very coordinated and concerted effort" and "reach out to NGOs currently in the field and maybe those considering going into the field" for resources. The numbers will be "constantly reviewed" by the president.

That sounded okay, though I was a little concerned about his lack of specifics. As it turned out, my unease was well-founded. Last week, we learned this from the AP:

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is having trouble finding the hundreds of civilians it wants to bolster its troop buildup in Afghanistan, so military reservists might be asked to do many of the jobs.

In announcing the new strategy for the war last month, the administration said it would send several hundred civilians -- such as agronomists, economists and legal experts -- to work on reconstruction and development issues as part of the military's counterinsurgency campaign.

To be clear, once again: The military plays a vital role, but it's not going to win anything in Afghanistan or Pakistan. All the military can do is provide population security and track down terrorists to a limited extent. But it can't fix either place. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates has acknowledged this in his call for more State Department funding.

What this shows is that the Obama administration is attempting to delegate the most important aspect of the plan to a severely underfunded, undermanned department at Foggy Bottom. So while the administration, as McDonough elucidated, is trying to do the right thing, it's apparently putting the cart before the horse here. To say that there's no solely military solution, to then rely on the State Department to tackle the civilian side of the problem, and only then to realize that State isn't equipped to handle it, is, to say the least, not good.

While most of the funding issues for State are the responsibility of Congress, until I hear more about how the administration plans to implement the reconstruction side of the issue in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I'm going to remain very uneasy about where this is headed. So on this, I have to give the administration a grade of C-.

This means I've given out grades of A, C, and C- to the administration in my three sub-categories for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But again, this doesn't mean a whole lot at this point. Primarily, it means that the administration knows what it needs to do, but that it's experiencing some initial--though significant--hiccups. No one said this would be easy, and we can take heart that this administration--as opposed to the last one--has "shown up." So I'm still hopeful that after eight disastrous years, we're now on the right track, with the right people in place. And for that, overall, I think the Obama administration, in its first 100 days of dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan, deserves at least a B. And that's what I'm giving it.