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"Iraq Has Oil and Afghanistan Has America": Obama Must Change up the Game

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One of the lines working around the Middle East and South Asia is that "Iraq has oil, and Afghanistan has the U.S."

The budget showdown looming in Washington now, threatening to shut down the government on Friday, seems to hardly recognize the expenditure by the US in FY2011 of $119 billion in Afghanistan, which has a GDP of just $14 billion.

No matter how the Obama administration wants to frame the challenge, the U.S. is currently tethered to a partner in Afghanistan whose friends and associates ferret money out of the country as fast as the U.S. is pumping it in.

I'm not anti-corruption in all cases. Corruption can work in nations where there are no functioning markets and can move people and interests faster in some cases than markets -- but the key to development is that money needs to stick inside a country and not to escape out into offshore accounts and assets. During its high speed development, Japan was probably the most successful structurally corrupt nation in the world -- but it very high walls limiting capital flight. We don't have that in Afghanistan.

And the key to what happens in Afghanistan, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and Afghanistan Commander General David Petraeus, is Pakistan's ability to neutralize the insurgent pockets along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

NYU School of Law's Center on Law & Security has sent out a note this morning highlighting a semiannual White House report issued to Congress on Pakistan's progress -- which the White House reports is bleak:

A semiannual White House report to Congress suggests that Pakistan is making little progress against militants and that the country has "no clear path toward defeating the insurgency," according to multiple reports. The AP reports that the Pakistani Army's failure to clear border regions of militants was cited as a key problem, and the AFP quotes the report as stating that "[w]hat remains vexing is the lack of any indication of 'hold' and 'build' planning or staging efforts to complement ongoing clearing operations."

The White House must address the fact that its approval of the surge of U.S. forces into Afghanistan has yielded few benefits -- while generating significant costs.

The costs are financial -- adding about $40 billion a year on levels already being spent. The costs are also in the field in the sense that the size of so-called enemy Taliban forces have grown at far higher rates than introduced ISAF forces, meaning that U.S. and allied forces have so antagonized local populations that it has driven up Taliban and insurgency recruitment that previously was not directed at us or Kabul. And the costs are geostrategic with Afghanistan looking more and more like a trap containing US power rather than a case where we are successfully leveraging capabilities to shape the region. This contributes to a global view that the U.S. is overextended. U.S. allies are counting on America less than was the case previously -- and North Korea, Iran, and other foes are moving forward their agendas.

Barack Obama must look at this mess -- and must begin to put in place a serious strategy that minimizes U.S. exposure to Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are currently fighting in Afghanistan an ally of Pakistan -- and this makes no strategic sense. The clock is running out -- and with all due respect to friends and policy intellectuals who have been working on this and who are in stronger support than I am of administration policy, your elegant models on how to resolve an India-Pakistan relationship as a way to stabilize Afghanistan are theoretically interesting and important -- but are politically insolvent. They always were.

The deal made between the White House and the Pentagon is that authorization for a surge of troops would be made to gut punch the Taliban for a year and then to see where things stood -- and if progress was not made to then begin shrinking U.S. exposure. For analysts to presume that the U.S. and American citizens should sign on for another trillion dollar debacle following the Iraq invasion doesn't account for the trade-offs at home and also the costs embedded in such a geostrategic distraction.

President Obama has to change the game -- urgently.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons