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What Obama Couldn't Say About Af-pak

The good news about Barack Obama's new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy is that it exists at all. After years of neglect under the Bush administration, Obama, and extremely capable deputies like Richard Holbrooke, are focused intently on the alarming nexus of al Qaeda and nuclear weapons in the region. The relative clam in Iraq has mercifully afforded Obama the luxury of time, money and troops to address this festering crisis, and with more resources and attention we finally stand a chance of defeating the radicals and stabilizing the region.

The bad news is that Obama's review left quite a lot unclear about America's goals and how we'll achieve them. His speech today vowed to set benchmarks for progress. But as the New York Times reports today, the administration "is still developing the specific benchmarks." Well that's the rub, isn't it? How much progress do we expect, and how quickly?

Take the question of the Afghan security forces. Obama promised to accelerate training to create an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 by 2011. But, he added, "[I]ncreases in Afghan forces may very well be needed as our plans to turn over security responsibility to the Afghans go forward." In fact, there's little doubt that a country of 32 million people will require much more. Just ask Holbrooke, Obama's State Deparment point man for the region. Speaking in Brussels last week about the target police force size, which had previously been reported, Holbrooke said that "[e]veryone we talked to without exception -- Afghans, insurgency experts, the government, American military -- agreed that was not sufficient." So, what number would be sufficient? And how close to that number will Obama feel obligated to get before he's ready to exit? That remains unclear.

And what about our ultimate goal for the region? Here's how Obama put it: "I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal:  to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." But what does "defeat" mean, exactly? Can we totally stamp out violent Sunni extremism in both those countries, especially as Pakistan's madrassas continue to breed intense anti-Americanism? Even if we do crush al Qaeda, at what point are we confident that conditions are stable enough to prevent its return? And while Obama's speech made clear that full Taliban rule over all Afghanistan is unacceptable, could we ever trade some limited regional Taliban control for peace and a refusal to harbor al Qaeda? That's not clear, either. Obviously, such questions don't have easy answers. It would be unfair to expect Obama to answer them all--although he will have to spell out those benchmarks eventually.

So maybe the bigger shortcoming of the speech lay with the very difficult questions that Obama--for military, legal and diplomatic reasons--simply couldn't address. Consider the drone war. America has come to rely heavily on targeted Predator assassinations in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border, an effort which may soon be expanded far deeper into Pakistan, and broadened to target militants who have attacked Pakistan, not just Afghanistan. Who are we willing to kill this way, exactly? On what evidence and legal authority? How many innocents die with them--and is the cost in local outrage worth the gain? (Past precedents offer mixed lessons, and the leader of Obama's Af-Pak review, Bruce Reidel, has written warily about drone attacks as "a very delicate balancing act.") The problem here is that the White House won't even officially acknowledge that it carries out such strikes.

What about detainees? Currently we're holding some 600 of them at Afghanistan's Bagram air base--aka "Afghanistan's Guantanamo"-- with plans for a major expansion. How long can and will we hold suspected terrorists captured in the region, and what rights will we grant them? It's not clear that Obama's legal team has yet figured this out.

Finally, what can be done about support within Pakistan's military intelligence service for the Talban? One approach might be to broker a detente between Pakistan and India--specifically over the vicious territorial feud in Kashmir, a prime magnet for would-be Islamic radicals. Last year, Bruce Reidel argued that solving Kashmir was a key way to help normalize Pakistan. "The next president must adopt a more sophisticated approach to Pakistan and its terror nexus," he wrote, one "that goes beyond threats and sanctions, beyond commando raids and intelligence cooperation, beyond aid and aircraft sales. It is time to come to grips with what motivates Pakistan’s behavior and make peace." He added that "[a] quiet American effort to promote a solution, led by the next U.S. president, is probably essential" to such an effort. Of course, Obama couldn't talk about such a thing today, in part because India demands that it not be lumped in publicly with the Af-Pak problem.

In some sense, these unaddressed points serve as a metaphor for Obama's overall conundrum in Afghanistan and Pakistan. America's biggest problems, and most promising approaches, reside in areas that can't be discussed openly and candidly. That's because they are murky, unpleasant, and morally complex--not the stuff of a bold speech to the nation.  

--Michael Crowley