03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The New Strategy for Obama's War: Precision Power

Barack Obama owns Afghanistan. If our President said it once he said it a hundred times in 2008 on the campaign trail: "We have to win in Afghanistan." He did not hedge. He did not say "do better" or "shape a clearer policy." We have to win in Afghanistan. Did he believe this? At the time, I concluded that he must -- otherwise why make such a bold declaration, in knowledge of the fates of other great powers that have tried and failed there? Now I am not so sure. Perhaps Candidate Obama misjudged the mood of the country in 2007-2008 and concluded, incorrectly, that like Democrats of past races he had to talk tough on foreign policy, whereas in fact Americans would have been (and still would be) just as happy and relieved to hear him bracket Iraq and Afghanistan as two ventures from which we need to extract ourselves as expeditiously as possible. Not to say that the majority of Americans, who prefer not to dwell upon a nasty possibility like a war against Islamic extremism, are right. Or that Barack Obama is wrong. But more and more -- really every day that he delays responding to General McChrystal's request for additional troops in Afghanistan -- President Obama is looking like a man trapped by his own words (ironic for a man with a reputation for speech) who has neither the conviction nor the will to execute them.

What would happen if we pulled out of Afghanistan? The proxy war between India and Pakistan there would go on. India would continue with its money and construction teams for buildings and roads to support Kabul. Helping the countryside insurgencies, Pakistan would continue to supply the Afghan Taliban. Afghanistan would settle into what it has always been: a geography of tribal loyalties and rivalries punctuated by the occasional city-state (Kabul, Kandahar, Herat) that historically has never wielded much power beyond its walls. Possibly, China would encroach, pushing over its short Afghan border, both to protect its considerable copper interests in Afghanistan and to counter Indian influence to the South. Over time, Iran would move, bringing Persian Herat into its sphere. From an American point of view, could we not live with these consequences? Yes, our prestige as a great power would take a considerable hit -- but that happened when we withdrew from Vietnam, and yet we survived. Meanwhile we would not be expending blood and treasure on a people who do not want us in their midst.

Here is the problem with that scenario. Pakistan. A large country with explosive growth -- already the second-largest Muslim population in the world -- that teeters on the verge of violent political change. If Pakistan falls to fundamentalist Islamic forces, then American national security is threatened. Even without taking Pakistan's nuclear capability into consideration, this is true. For a fundamentalist Pakistan threatens India, far beyond any dispute over Kashmir. Hindu extremists, Indian Muslim extremists--all would be enabled in a future that almost certainly promises serious sectarian, religious upheavals and adjustments for an India that in other ways is increasingly acculturated to and aligned with the values of Western democracy and commerce. In short, any march of religious zealotry through South Asia destabilizes a large chunk of world geography and therefore threatens us. China, for example, would respond with an even greater military build-up than the current provocative expansion of its deep-water fleet.

Pakistan is the reason why in the next week or so President Obama is going to commit more brigades to Afghanistan. (And once his Asia trip is done, how can he further delay the announcement of a necessity he must have acknowledged in his mind long ago?) But the President is going to pinpoint the uses to which these new troops can be put. He will describe some version of what John Kerry gave the Council on Foreign Relations when he returned from Afghanistan at the end of October: the need for "a smart counterinsurgency in a limited geographic area." The President will not detail the quid-pro-quo: the specific ways in which his administration is pressuring Hamid Karzai to contain the miasma of corruption in Kabul. But John Kerry's comment on October 26 that the men who run the most compromised ministries in Kabul will have to go tells us something. When Barack Obama makes this further commitment to Afghanistan while at the same time reining it in, we will have a new foreign policy. It is not soft power, for after all we will still be at war. Our Predator drones will hover over North and South Waziristan, despite the clamor from Pakistanis in the street. It is not smart power, for only history reveals whether choices made are foolish or wise. Our new foreign policy is what I call precision power.

At his October CFR talk, John Kerry showed the habit of mind that directs precision power. In answer to a question from Congresswoman Jane Harman about drones, Kerry said, "On the drones, I've had a number of discussions -- I mean, can't help but not have them, because they [Afghanis and Pakistanis] bring it up. But in truth, there is a distinction -- I hate to say this, but there really is a distinction between what you sometimes hear publicly and what you also hear privately. . . . I am convinced that it [the use of drones] is highly circumscribed now, very carefully controlled within a hierarchy of decision-making, significantly limited in its collateral damage, and profoundly successful in the impact it has had in putting al Qaeda on the run ... Fourteen of the top twenty al Qaeda leaders have been eliminated."

A disciplined agility, tough but flexible in the pros and cons, clarifying and ordering priorities, targeting the highest priority and then taking the blow-back -- this is the impetus behind precision power. In a time when we are increasingly aware that American funds and resources are limited, the Obama Administration is aiming multiple weapons, but with parsimony--hopefully with increasing invention and laser intensity--at circumscribed and carefully-defined targets. Hillary Clinton's visit to Pakistan earlier this month bore all the hallmarks of this new precision power. In an earlier piece, I described the ways in which her appearance as Secretary of State, from a public and therefore somewhat superficial perspective, went wrong. If we part the verbiage (hers and her hosts'), however, we can make out traces of the precision power propelling Mrs. Clinton's visit.

Precision power requires team effort. If hitting a small target is going to mean anything in solving a larger problem, aim must be true, concentration relentless and force continuously applied. Early November was Mrs. Clinton's first visit to Pakistan as Secretary of State; it was Special Representative Richard Holbrooke's sixth (if my count is correct). The Obama Administration is a team, and various members of the foreign policy team are bombarding Pakistan with their presence and constant reminders about the consequences of insurgency. Of course, eventually human nature may vitiate the force of group effort, if competing egos and agendas splinter the approach. But for now the strategy holds, as the importance of remarks from a senator (even Kerry) before a sedate gathering demonstrate.

Precision power demands accountability. For this new foreign policy, faith without works is dead. In other words, the United States will no longer trust Pakistan with the spending of our taxpayer dollars. There must be a transparency of expense and progress. Our largesse must produce measurable results. It is almost unbelievable -- but alas true -- that the unclassified budgets of the Bush Administration provided the Pakistani military $100 million a month in direct cash deposits without any demand for accountability, for example. The tradition of foreign aid going straight into another country's sovereign funds predates the Bush years, and skeptics expect the custom to continue. If precision power is going to work, however, future aid will increasingly be tied to aims, means and results. Secretary Clinton tightened the purse strings in the presence of the Pakistanis, who were none too pleased, of course. Even as she announced an additional 289.5 million dollars for Pakistan (on top of what is promised in the Kerry-Lugar bill), she warned of the imminent arrival of implementers for this aid. Mrs. Clinton told Pakistanis, for example, to expect a special "international energy coordinator," who reports directly to her, to determine exactly what their country needs in terms of energy security. Already--at least in the plans of Clinton & Holbrooke -- the money that the United States will disburse for energy repairs in Pakistan will be targeted carefully at 10,000 tube wells and the Tarbela powerhouse.

Precision power accepts the consequences of prioritizing. Here again Mrs. Clinton's visit to Pakistan provides examples of the ways the Obama folk are willing to wield realpolitik. Within the 289.5 million Clinton dispensation, 45 million is targeted for Pakistani education. But that 45 million is going to the Punjab, home both to the Pakistani military, who have long extorted land from farmers there, and a growing insurgency. Therefore, it is doubtful that our taxpayer dollars are going to raise the literacy rate of the poor in the Punjab. We can only hope tha the Secretary of State got something from General Kayani in return for the pocket change. This is the kind of realistic bargain (in a country where the military hold such power and influence and own so much) that President Obama seems to be prepared to make.

This is not a bargain easy to accept. For Mrs. Clinton, the consequence as Secretary of State is putting aside the specific concerns of women and children to which she has dedicated a life of public service. A quarter of Pakistan's population lives below the global poverty line; sixty percent are illiterate indentured farmers bound to a feudal society in which a few old families and the military own all the land; nonbelievers are burned alive for apostasy; the Hudood Ordinances criminalize non-marital sex for women even in cases of rape; child labor and the caste system still abide. But such injustices are peripheral in this new targeted American foreign policy. Tellingly, Hillary Clinton put the larger problems of Pakistani society to its elites this way: "And I don't know what you're going to do with that kind of challenge, unless you start planning right now." She was speaking about the coming population increase from 180 to 300 million people; she did not, however, go into specifics. These changes will be up to the Pakistani people. The United States can do only so much. In Afghanistan, furthermore, we will not be able to advance the cause of women if we are going to pin our counterinsurgency efforts to a few key geographies. Below the top strata of caste, the mistreatment of women is endemic, even more so than corruption, in South Asia. To facilitate measurable progress in the span of a human lifetime, we would have to plant a huge American force -- military at first and then civilian -- into all the provinces of Afghanistan for decades. For many reasons--political, financial, bureaucratic, logistical, personal -- we are not going to do that. Smaller efforts, like securing a country's electrical grid, will have to suffice.

Precision power wields words as objects of force. About as well as any politician ever, Barack Obama understands the many ways words can be used to achieve ends. He seems to have told his Secretary of State to go to Pakistan and speak truth to power. (Again, the team approach. If Clinton is the public enforcer, Holbrooke is the private there.) As Mrs. Clinton herself said, she did not come to Pakistan "for happy talk." Most memorably, she called out her hosts on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. She had biting words for Pakistan's elites. "The country should think about helping themselves before seeking help from others," she reproved. She chided a group of newspaper editors for their country's low percentage of taxes on GDP: "We [the U.S.] tax everything that moves and doesn't move, and that's not what we see in Pakistan." (In both instances, an annunciation of the new accountability for American aid.)

At the same time, the Obama foreign policy team understands that the power of word works both ways. The Cinton trip was most of all an attempt to get the Pakistani media to relent in its anti-Americanism. In her televised chat with seven Pakistani journalists, Mrs. Clinton urged the seven, as well as their peers, to come to the United States. "We'll have to set some of this up," she enthused. And at the same time, she suggested that Pakistan should send American journalists to the tribal areas along the Afghan border. Richard Holbrooke has been championing the new Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Azadi radio program for Pashto speakers. Media outreach and propaganda, which has languished at the State Department in recent decades, is an important component of this new precision power. Despite the problems and investigations of Alhurra, the radio network financed by us that broadcasts an American perspective to the Middle East, the Obama Administration may devote millions to a similar outreach for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Our priority now in South Asia is waking up the elites in Pakistan's military and civil society to the mortal danger in their midst. This is the core problem we have targeted. We are using team force to keep Pakistan focussed upon it. And so we have defined success narrowly, while deploying a variety of American assets (military, civilian expertise, judicial, media outreach) to achieve it. We are trying to use only as much force as minimally required; but this is a difficult mastery. We must remain in Afghanistan because our departure would further destabilize Pakistan, by opening up sanctuary for al Qaeda and Pakistan's indigenous insurgencies across the border.

This precise prioritizing and targeting demands from us intelligence, focus, persistence,dodged attention to detail, cooperation married to ruthlessness. Most of all, precision power requires an almost preternatural patience at a time when we sense the clock is running out. Both Clinton and Holbrooke must suffer the occasional urge to shake like ragdolls the Pakistani elites with whom they negotiate. How can they not see that like French civil and judicial society on the eve of revolution, their world is about to be swept away? Instead the military continues to support insurgents in the mistaken belief that as long as these Taliban are across the border they pose no domestic threat. Instead Pakistan holds out its palm for aid while complaining that we are trying to tell the country how to spend it. The educated city folk wail about the drone attacks in the territories -- a hypocrisy if there ever was one since Pakistan has never cared enough about the wild borderlands to grant the inhabitants the same civil rights that the rest of Pakistan enjoys. We have had some success in proding the Pakistani military to move a few men from the border with India, to take back the Swat Valley and to move into Waziristan. But now winter has come, and with it the end of fighting season in the mountains. The Pakistani insurgencies will have time to re-group. Meanwhile the Pakistani madrassas continue to graduate recruits.

There is nothing like the convergence of two equally unpleasant scenarios -- in this case the danger in Pakistan and American forces settling further into Afghanistan -- to sharpen a leader's mind. Presumably, this is the ministration foreign affairs has applied to President Obama during his first year in office. Whether his throwing down on Afghanistan was a campaigner's heedlessness or a vision of the future, Afghanistan is now Obama's war. Out of necessity, the President and his team are crafting a different kind of foreign policy. However events play out in South Asia, it will be interesting to see the ways in which we use this new precision power elsewhere, particularly in places where there is promise of success, over the next decade.