by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Matt Duss
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Last Friday, President Obama announced his new plan for Afghanistan, in which he will add 4,000 more troops -- in addition to the 17,000 announced in February -- to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" the al Qaeda network in Afghanistan and Pakistan "and to prevent their return to either country in the future." The new troops will focus on training and augmenting Afghanistan's police and military, with the goal of increasing the size of the Afghan army from 83,000 to 134,000 by 2011. The result of an intense process of policy review launched by the president immediately upon taking office, the plan represents a significant shift in America's perception of national security. Rather than focusing efforts solely on the military side of the conflict, the President's new policy also adds hundreds of civilian advisers -- including experts in agriculture, education, and law -- who will "concentrate on improving life for ordinary Afghans." Additionally, the plan includes an increased regional focus, recognizing that stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be obtained without the consultation and cooperation of other countries in the region.
MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME: For years, the war in Afghanistan has been a casualty of the war in Iraq. By diverting troops and resources to Iraq, the Bush administration allowed the Taliban to re-establish themselves in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, and Afghanistan steadily collapsed back into insurgent warfare. Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) stated yesterday, "[W]e have under-resourced Afghanistan for too long, we took our eye off the ball when we went into Iraq. All of our resources were devoted to that effort." Having failed to complete the mission in Afghanistan, the Bush administration handed the new president a war that promises to be as difficult and costly as Iraq has been. The number of Afghan civilian deaths "jumped by almost 40 percent over a one-year period, according to a United Nations survey, from 1,500 in 2007 to more than 2,000 in 2008." As with his choice of George Mitchell as special envoy to the Israeli-Arab peace process, President Obama signaled early on his intention to make Afghanistan one of his administration's highest priorities by appointing skilled diplomat Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to the conflict.
THE CHALLENGE OF PAKISTAN: According to Brian Katulis and Peter Juul of the Center for American Progress, the President's Pakistan strategy "represents an even starker shift from the Bush administration's policies." By including both Afghanistan and Pakistan in Holbrooke's portfolio, the President's new policy acknowledges that dealing with instability in Afghanistan requires attention to growing instability in neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban and al Qaeda currently have sanctuary. Pakistan faces a serious challenge from domestic religious extremists, who have carried out a number of attacks in recent weeks, including an attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in early March, and a spectacular raid on a police station earlier this week. Commenting on the policy review process, journalist Steve Coll wrote that "for the first time in decades, the entire American foreign policy and national security system -- the uniformed military, the State Department, the N.S.C. -- really bore down on the problem of Pakistan, in all of its daunting complexity." Katulis and Juul wrote that "the Obama administration has rightly chosen to view the militancy problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single, unified challenge that can only be solved through coordinated action in both countries."
AN OPENING TO IRAN?: Yesterday, delegates from 70 nations gathered in The Hague to discuss reconstruction in Afghanistan, and the ways that NATO and other international partners could contribute to greater stability there. One notable participant was Afghanistan's neighbor Iran. On the sidelines of the conference, Ambassador Holbrooke conversed briefly with Iranian deputy foreign minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhondzade, the highest-level contact between the United States and Iran in nearly four decades. Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had no contact with Iranian representatives, she told reporters that "the United States handed the Iranian delegation a letter requesting its intercession in the cases of two American citizens who are being held in Iran and another who is missing." It is thought possible that securing cooperation with Iran in an area of mutual interest -- stability in Afghanistan -- may provide an opening for broader negotiations in the future, something Obama has made clear that he would like to undertake. As he indicated while a presidential candidate, Obama's new approach to the conflict in Afghanistan is an attempt to bring all elements of U.S. power to bear upon America's national security challenges.