Waiting for Obama’s Post-Election Afghanistan Action Plan


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This is a guest note by BRIAN KATULIS, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. This article first appeared at the Center for American progress website on 2 November 2009, titled “Using U.S. Leverage to Strengthen Afghan Governance: Analysis of Karzai’s Reelection
Waiting for Obama’s Post-Election Afghanistan Action Plan
Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission made it official today–it cancelled the second round of the presidential elections after Abdullah Abdullah pulled out of the race yesterday, and declared incumbent President Hamid Karzai the winner. As many senior Obama administration officials have noted, this outcome was not a big surprise–Karzai had a wide lead in the first round of voting and it would have been difficult, but not impossible, for Abdullah Abdullah to close the gap.
What the Obama administration isn’t talking as much about is how it plans to structure the relationship with the new Karzai government moving forward. The Obama administration has rightly been in a holding pattern, waiting to see the results of what has been a messy and mismanaged electoral process. Now the pressure will understandably increase on the Obama administration to outline its revised strategy for the country.
If there’s a silver lining to the messy electoral process, it is that the elections in Afghanistan brought to the forefront the significant challenges of corruption, poor governance, and leadership deficits that exist in Afghanistan.
Now that the election results are official, the Obama administration needs to work with its close NATO allies to set a clear plan aimed at outlining expectations for the Karzai government on fighting corruption, dealing with the drug trafficking, and advancing good governance. Some discussion of this emerged earlier this fall in a mini-policy debate over the draft metrics to measure progress, but that debate has unfortunately faded. Those draft metrics, quite frankly, were underwhelming on many accounts, reading like a vague wish list of things the United States would like to get done.
Vague wish lists won’t cut it, particularly if President Obama is contemplating sending more troops into harm’s way.
The policy and political debate in the United States has narrowly and simplistically focused on troop numbers–an important part of the equation, but not the only one. And conservatives have tried to reduce Afghanistan to a question of President Obama’s determination and will, like in David Brooks’ latest article in the New York Times, which takes us back to a time in 2002 to 2005 when conservatives treated national security like a football pep rally.
The missing ingredient from the Afghanistan policy debate has been a clear implementation plan for shaping the Afghan leadership’s strategic calculations and actions. There are numerous documents and plans on paper–such as the 2006 Afghanistan Compact (pdf) and the 2008 Afghanistan National Development Strategy. What’s been sorely lacking is an actual policy and plan to achieve the goals and implement the ideas laid out in these strategies.
holbrooke cap twn.jpgThe Obama administration didn’t have a clear implementation plan to accompany the strategy it released last March (pdf), and the policy was still very much a work in progress as demonstrated at an event we hosted at the Center for American Progress with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and his interagency team. Saying that “we’ll know it when we see it” when it comes to achieving progress in Afghanistan is not enough–it’s not enough to convince the American people that more troops and money are worth it, and equally important, it’s not enough to shape Afghan leaders’ calculations and actions, including the reelected Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
As my colleague Caroline Wadhams argued earlier this fall, the question of what to do about Afghanistan is not simply a question of troop levels. And it’s not enough to talk in lofty terms about “smart power,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates do.
The real test case of what is becoming the emerging Obama doctrine on U.S. national security is found in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and thus far the team has quite frankly not delivered the goods on the significant promise of “smart power.” Doing so would mean having a clear policy implementation plan to shape the calculations and actions of Afghanistan’s leaders.
So when President Obama announces his decision on Afghanistan–quite possibly later this month–he cannot simply talk about the troop levels, as important as that decision is. The Obama administration needs to outline how all of our resources–including our most precious national security asset, our men and women in uniform–will be used effectively to shape the actions of Afghan partners.
We had a rudderless policy for eight long years that did not effectively address this question of leverage in Afghanistan. The time has come for President Obama to bring real change to the policy debate on Afghanistan.
— Brian Katulis


10 comments on “Waiting for Obama’s Post-Election Afghanistan Action Plan

  1. JAMES says:



  2. samuelburke says:

    “Following the example of the currently fashionable pro-Israel group J Street, which chose a Washington DC letter street that does not actually exist for the name of its lobby, I would like to propose a new lobby that would also be based on a non-address, X Street. Membership in X Street will be open to all American citizens of every race, national origin, and religious belief. It will be guided by a unifying principle, that preservation of the liberties defined in the constitution and support of the national interest of the United States should be the sole objectives of any and all foreign policy. It would be the modern embodiment of George Washington’s warning to steer clear of foreign involvements and to be a friend to all.
    X Street recognizes that America’s lopsided support of the state of Israel has made the United States a target of terrorism, has weakened the US’s international standing and damaged its reputation, and has negatively impacted on the American economy. The United States will advise Israel that its settlement policy is in violation of numerous UN resolutions and that it opposes on principle the continuing denial of any rights to West Bank and Gazan Palestinians. Washington will no longer use its veto power to protect Israeli interests in the UN and other international bodies. As Israel is now the twenty-ninth wealthiest nation in the world per capita, all US economic and military assistance will cease immediately. The United States will publicly declare its knowledge that Israel has a nuclear arsenal and will ask the Israeli government to join the NPT regime and subject its program to IAEA inspection. The purpose is not to punish Israel but to make it like every other country vis-à-vis the United States – a friend and a trading partner, but there will be no free ride and no presumption of a “special relationship.” There will be no special relationships with anyone.”


  3. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi says:

    The Afghan policy review must be a real brain- storming exercise rather than putting old wine in new bottles.


  4. ... says:

    the plan was and remains the same… keep the military machine working.. keep feeding it… any other plan is viewed as suicidal…. obama has inherited the plan and is probably not shocked to know how this works….


  5. JohnH says:

    Actually we should send Bush and Cheney over there with a one way ticket. If there were any justice, they would rot in the quagmire they created…


  6. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Hey, maybe we can send in the Chalabis to clean things up.


  7. JohnH says:

    So let me see if I got this right. The geniuses that insist on keeping us in Afghanistan want to transform an illegitimate, corrupt government, representing Afghan elites, into an exemplary government, modeled, say, on Iraq. Wow! Now there’s a stable outcome for you!
    Or maybe the venal international officials merely want Karzai to gild the lily, clean up his image and return to being the vassal he was supposed to be all along.
    Unfortunately for Katulis and the interventionist community, the US has been presiding over a farce, and farces rarely have happy endings. They either end as farce or as tragedy…


  8. Dan Kervick says:

    “If there’s a silver lining to the messy electoral process, it is that the elections in Afghanistan brought to the forefront the significant challenges of corruption, poor governance, and leadership deficits that exist in Afghanistan.”
    Well, I guess some would call it a silver lining. On the other hand, if the goal is to try to extend the authority, credibility and security umbrella of the Kabul government over as much of Afghanistan as possible, I’m not sure spending several months exposing its venality, vulnerability and tin pot ineptitude is the way to go.
    “Now that the election results are official, the Obama administration needs to work with its close NATO allies to set a clear plan aimed at outlining expectations for the Karzai government on fighting corruption, dealing with the drug trafficking, and advancing good governance.”
    And our leverage over the government is … what? That if they don’t behave properly we will pull up stakes and leave? Hah. That’s hardly believable after we have spent a year now making it plain that we have invested so much reputation, ambition, honor and hooah in the Afghan campaign that we will never be able to bring ourselves to leave. Do you think Karzai didn’t notice Stanley of Scythia’s intercontinental foot-stamping fuss, and doesn’t realize the good general will not be denied his conquest? McChrystal’s dreaming of statues, international airports and high schools with his name on them all over The New Afghanistan.
    Karzai can now write out his own blank checks as an army of soldiers and eager-beaver liberal nation builders line up at his door to vie for the privilege of putting their Disneyland plans into effect. All he has to do is a mumble some “civil society” this, and “Al Qaeda” that, and “social infrastructure” here, and “gender equity” there from time to time to get our best, brawniest and brightest to faint in anticipation.


  9. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “The time has come for President Obama to bring real change to the policy debate on Afghanistan”
    Oh hey, no problem. He will be more than happy to “bring real change to the policy debate”. But after he’s changed the “debate”, his balls will shrivel up, and he won’t change the policy.
    But fear not, he can always hand it to Hillary to make things worse.


  10. John Waring says:

    This is not reform. This is transformation. Karzai is running a criminal enterprise. Just how do you propose to recast him into our image?
    This guy is not a partner. At best he is dead weight. At worst he is an active participant in shaping the disaster looming ahead.
    I know of no power on earth capable of the alchemy you propose.
    I have a better idea. Let’s cut our losses and stop this fool’s errand.


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