The Ultimate Test Case

Back in the spring of 2008, with his bruising presidential primary battle against fellow-Senator Hillary Clinton all but over, Barack Obama's prosaic work as a junior senator became national news -- and gave him a chance to advance his own foreign-policy vision. On April 8, Obama joined his future vice president, Sen. Joe Biden, and the rest of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in questioning Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the military commander and chief diplomat in Iraq at the time, who wanted to delay troop withdrawals.

Obama laid into the two witnesses. Both men had been proponents of the troop surge Obama opposed, which made Iraq more secure but failed to create space for political reconciliation. The limited resources that the U.S. had to fight two wars couldn't justify expansive goals in Iraq, Obama argued, and the men needed to draw out a commensurately narrow end-state for the occupation. Destroying al-Qaeda in Iraq so it could never reconstitute itself would be impossible. What, Obama asked, could the U.S. live with in Iraq?

Throughout his campaign, Obama often used a simple shorthand to convey both the concrete and the abstract dimensions of his foreign-policy outlook: We need to do more than end a war -- we need to end the mind-set that got us into war.

The war was Iraq; the mind-set was a reference to both the neoconservative excesses of the Bush administration and the rigid orthodoxies of U.S. foreign policy. Obama pledged to discard discredited notions about the causes of terrorism -- such as the belief that it was primarily an ideological struggle based on religion and hate. His administration would use so-called smart-power ideas about development and engagement to reduce threats while deploying military force responsibly and as a last resort. Development would alleviate the poverty and despair that led people to violence; engagement would remove the state support of extremist groups and build productive alliances.

In a July 2008 speech, Obama promised balance: "Instead of pushing the entire burden of our foreign policy on to the brave men and women of our military, I want to use all elements of American power to keep us safe, and prosperous, and free." It was a risky position to stake out. Just four years earlier, Sen. John Kerry had been pilloried for asserting that terrorism is a matter for law enforcement and intelligence, not just military force. And even if Obama could garner public support for his approach, after eight years of conservative foreign policy, it would be difficult to turn the ship of state in such a new direction.

Obama also warned of one clear threat: Afghanistan. "If another attack on our homeland comes, it will likely come from the same region where 9-11 was planned," he said. His campaign often made an example of the conflict, using it to assail Bush's (and John McCain's) obsession with Iraq and to guard Obama's right flank. Afghanistan was the neglected war -- a perfect parable for everything that had gone wrong in seven years of U.S. foreign affairs and a convenient way to reaffirm his 2002 speech against the Iraq War in which he claimed, "I'm not against all wars." Recommitting to Afghanistan, Obama assured voters, would not distract him from the global picture as the Bush administration had been distracted by Iraq.

"He's taken a double-barreled bet that Americans will go for a policy that is more explicitly internationalist, more explicitly consensual, more explicitly diplomacy, negotiation, compromise, and engagement focused, if they also see that none of those qualities is in contradiction to the willingness to be tough where and as necessary," explains Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, a progressive foreign-policy think tank.

In other words, Afghanistan is the proving ground for Obama's foreign-policy vision. What happens there will either validate or undermine his broader reform efforts.


Even as Obama promised a different kind of foreign policy, his embrace of the "good war" laid the groundwork for Afghanistan to overtake his broader vision. During the campaign, he pledged to send 7,000 more troops to the conflict, to push for more development in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and ultimately to finish "the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban" with new tactics developed in Iraq to combat insurgencies. At the time, approximately 30,000 American soldiers were deployed to bases in Afghanistan, where they focused mainly on hunting terrorists and insurgents. Even though 2008 saw the largest troop deployment since the conflict began, the Taliban had regained its strength in Pakistan and began an increasingly successful campaign against the new Afghan government; development efforts existed but were constrained.

On his first day in office, Obama emphasized his focus on Afghanistan by appointing veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke the first special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, creating a civilian counterpart for Petraeus, who was now overseeing both Iraq and Afghanistan from his post at the U.S. Central Command. After a hurried review of the situation in Afghanistan informed by Bush-era analysis, the administration quickly confirmed that it would follow through on Obama's campaign promises and also send an additional 13,000 troops. Brian Katulis, a security-policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, later derided this initial assessment as "pre-cooked" because it didn't address the fundamental question of whether the United States' investment in Afghanistan was out of proportion with its interests there.

Over the next several months, insurgents in Afghanistan continued to gain ground despite the additional troops, and casualties increased (last year saw the most American casualties since the war began). In August, criticism of Afghanistan's fraud-ridden presidential election wounded the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai's corrupt and ineffective regime and raised questions about the viability of his government as a partner for the United States while political unrest continued to increase in nearby Pakistan.

Also in August, the commander Obama had installed in Afghanistan that previous spring, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, finished his assessment of the war. It called for a more ambitious counterinsurgency strategy, a doctrine popularized by Petraeus in Iraq, which emphasizes protecting the population and addressing the roots of conflict -- everything from material needs to political disputes. McChrystal's assessment was accompanied by a classified request for 80,000 more troops and a warning that without a new approach, defeat would be inevitable. The request was written largely by U.S.-based policy experts flown into Afghanistan for short visits, and when it was leaked to the press, those experts were ready to defend it, creating intense pressure on Obama to acquiesce.

All this forced the administration to reassess every aspect of its Afghanistan strategy, giving Obama another chance to fundamentally alter the centerpiece of his foreign-policy agenda.

"If the administration really wants to demonstrate that their global vision, which emphasizes all components of American power, including diplomacy and development assistance, they're going to have to make that actually achieve results in both Afghanistan and Pakistan," Katulis says. "Afghanistan and Pakistan are the ultimate test case of everything the president has been talking about when he discusses his national-security strategy as smart power."

The Obama administration is finding all of its challenges in one country. Afghanistan combines the task of developing a corrupt, failed state; the scourge of extreme political Islam; the dangers of terrorism and insurgency; the threat of nuclear proliferation and destabilization in nearby Pakistan; and a delicate diplomatic portfolio as the U.S. seeks to balance power between everyone from local militias and a corrupt government to a belligerent, nuclear-weapon-seeking Iran, a shaky frenemy in Pakistan, and its rival, the emerging economic superpower of India.

Seven years of neglect under the Bush administration created a problem of such complexity that immediately imposing a clear vision for Afghanistan was nearly impossible. The situation was complicated by the domestic political debate in the U.S., which quickly settled into a familiar groove: How many troops would be sent to Afghanistan or taken away? Conservatives hammered Obama for not immediately acquiescing to McChrystal's troop request, and many on the left argued it was time for the U.S. to leave this expensive distraction behind altogether. Other experts, like Gilles Dorronsoro, who were echoed by Vice President Joe Biden, advocated for a reorientation of American forces in Afghanistan without an increase in troop levels, which would buy time to demonstrate a new approach. While the military pressured Obama for a larger commitment, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry (himself the former coalition commander in Afghanistan) sent cables imploring Obama not to commit to troop increases in order to provide additional leverage over Karzai.

Obama's final decision in December offered something for everyone, or tried to: The U.S. would deploy an additional 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, fewer than McChrystal requested but still a tripling of the troop commitment to the conflict since Obama's inauguration. The strategy was virtually unchanged from what Obama had offered in the spring. The goal also remained the same: "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future." Obama's plan echoed the surge he opposed in Iraq: An escalation to protect civilians in population centers and train Afghan security forces that will, in theory, reverse the momentum of the insurgents and even co-opt those who are willing to lay down their arms. Along with aid from a "civilian surge" of U.S. officials and contractors with expertise in engineering, agriculture, justice, and local politics, the hope is that this will give the Afghan government time to recover from corruption and incompetence (the euphemism is "capacity building").

The one new development was a timeline: In July of 2011, the U.S. will start handing over responsibilities to the Afghans so that coalition forces can begin to withdraw. The president insisted on this timeline, and it remains the single most progressive aspect of the plan -- a recognition that, in the greater scheme of things, the U.S. has better things to do for its national security than muck about in Afghanistan.

"Any American president has to think about the political sustainability of his policies, and an American president that launches into policies that he can't sustain politically isn't doing his job," Hurlburt says. "That's true of Obama, that's true of Bush, it's true of everybody. You look at some of the things that Bush started and couldn't sustain -- that's the worst of all possible worlds."


Obama's tinkering around the edges -- the timeline, the counterinsurgency strategy, the emphasis on development, the whole-of-government approach -- marks a real departure from the previous administration's efforts. His rhetoric still holds the promise of the overhaul he campaigned on. But the president's failure to fundamentally reorient the Afghan conflict has broad ramifications for his promised foreign-policy reforms.

Perhaps the most significant loss is the big picture. Nearly 100,000 troops are committed to pursuing Obama's "narrow goal" of defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But is this extensive involvement in an Afghan civil war the best way to fight al-Qaeda and like-minded groups? After all, one of al-Qaeda leaders' stated goals is drawing the United States into expensive and intractable long-term conflicts. Even as we're leaving Iraq, doubling-down on Afghanistan plays into their hands.

"We did not ask for this fight," the president said in a major speech on Afghanistan in December. "On September 11, 2001, 19 men hijacked four airplanes and used them to murder nearly 3,000 people." It was an explanation straight out of the Bush era. Much of the 9-11 operation was carried out not in Afghanistan or Pakistan (or Iraq, for that matter) but in places like Germany and Florida. And terrorism experts warn that officials should not take for granted that al-Qaeda could re-establish a safe haven in Afghanistan, or that such safe havens are threats to the United States. The administration admits that fewer than 100 al-Qaeda terrorists remain in Afghanistan -- and that many insurgents aren't ideological opponents of the United States. Some are petty criminals, some are simply armed local groups tired of being pushed around by the central government, and others fight merely for pay. (The U.S. was embarrassed to find out in December that the Taliban paid its fighters more than the Afghan National Army paid its soldiers.) Many of these insurgents are angry at the U.S. simply because we're there.

"The importance of a people not wanting to be occupied cannot be underestimated," says Matthew Hoh, a former Foreign Service officer who was the first person to resign a government post in protest of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. "National will or ethnic will cannot be downplayed or misunderstood or denied."

Meanwhile, the transnational terrorists we're supposedly fighting don't need bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan to attack us. Officials concede that safe havens in other failed or failing states must be pressed as well. Just weeks after Obama announced his strategy, a Nigerian man obtained explosives from an al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen -- which, along with places like Pakistan, Algeria, and Somalia, provides a "safe haven" for the group -- and attempted to destroy an international flight as it landed in Detroit. U.S. intelligence agencies, despite having some relevant information, didn't act in time to prevent the bomber from getting on the flight. Perhaps the billions of dollars dedicated to the new troops in Afghanistan would be better served fixing structural failures in intelligence-gathering.

Instead, we're seeing the considerable militarization of intelligence-gathering. After a suicide bomber killed seven Central Intelligence Agency employees in Afghanistan, CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote that "like our military, CIA officers are on the front lines against al-Qaeda and its violent allies." The officers were stationed there to manage a drone program that hunts terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. While fighting terrorists requires both intelligence-gathering and the kind of targeted strikes the CIA performs, there is a clear imbalance when a camp in Afghanistan has dozens of CIA employees but the National Counterterrorism Center has only eight or nine Middle East analysts.

The focus on troops has also hampered Obama's goal of placing equal emphasis on civilian and military aspects of our foreign policy. The military, which has increasingly become America's primary presence abroad, is resisting the attempt to narrow the focus of the war. Despite the White House's goal of training just over 200,000 Afghan soldiers and police, Pentagon officials plan to train 400,000. And Holbrooke, intended to be the civilian counterpart to Petraeus, has seen his influence diminish commensurate with his lack of resources. Though his office is still an important center of coordination, he plays a smaller-than-expected role in the White House-driven decision-making process.

Obama's foreign-policy vision professed a need to address the root causes of conflict by building up local infrastructure and actively fostering better lives for people in places like Afghanistan. Despite a consensus -- which even includes Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- that civilian development, medical access, and agricultural expertise are critical to counterinsurgency, the administration's budget request in March reflected a heavy emphasis on defense over development. Ambassador Eikenberry protested in a cable to Washington, asking for an additional $2.5 billion -- 60 percent more than he had been given. The military was receiving $68 billion.

Even if civilian efforts were given more resources, overhauling the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to make them more effective remains a challenge -- despite the fact that the State Department created a position to do just that. Although the administration expects to have 974 civilians on the ground by early 2010, beating a goal it set in March, this is a drop in the bucket: Afghanistan has a population of 28 million. Reports show a deep frustration from U.S. officials working on development projects, because they are almost entirely dependent on the military. Indeed, despite the growing acceptance of the need for civilian expertise, the military often finds itself trying to do the work of civilian agencies that aren't set up to operate in a war zone.

"We're in a 'build the airplane while you're flying it' kind of situation," Hurlburt says. "If the effort to produce a better, much more energetic and smartly focused civilian effort in Afghanistan succeeds, it will become the template for broader reform of the institutions." That template could be useful, Hurlburt adds, or it could be detrimental, since the lessons U.S. development officers learn in Afghanistan may not apply so well to countries that need U.S. help but aren't in the middle of a war.

This narrow focus on the military conflict also distracts from Pakistan, Afghanistan's nuclear neighbor, where an unstable government and the proliferation of extreme Islamist groups are of much more interest to the United States. "I am not sure what 40,000 additional troops in Afghanistan can do about the greater global security threat, instability in Pakistan," Katulis told me last fall. "You have nearly daily -- and sometimes twice-a-day -- attacks targeted inside of Pakistan, which is five times more populous and has nuclear weapons." Just consider the numbers: Obama is spending $1.5 billion a year on aid to Pakistan and over $68 billion fighting a war in Afghanistan.

With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visiting Pakistan, the administration has had some success in navigating the nation's complex politics. Clinton is trying to broaden the U.S.-Pakistan relationship from working with the government on national-security issues toward a holistic engagement with the entire country. It's exactly the kind of approach that Obama promised, but it is undermined by the use of drone strikes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which have increased anti-American sentiment.

The Obama team has set aside the Bush administration's end goal of installing a democracy and instead made a limited version of that aim the means to their central end: Everything comes down to eliminating the terrorist presence in Afghanistan. Vikram Singh, Holbrooke's defense adviser, says the region is the "epicenter" of al-Qaeda's action, which is why the administration has made preventing the group's re-establishment there a more pressing goal than dealing with al-Qaeda globally. With even John Kerry, now the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, using the distinctly Bush-administration phrase "global counterinsurgency" in his speeches on Afghanistan, progressive attempts to change the way we think about terrorism threats have taken a step back.


The president seems to have settled into the Washington consensus that he criticized as an up-and-coming senator. His Afghanistan strategy buys into the idea that American troops can defeat tenacious insurgencies, that our officials have the ability to build even the most basic state from the ground up, and that terrorists represent a monolithic enemy around the world. The cocky senator of last spring has been replaced by a cautious and tightly controlled president. There was a time when Obama could flout conventional wisdom, but now he must accommodate it. It's true that Obama did not start this war, did not under-resource it for eight years, and did not fail to pursue Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora. The credit for those dubious achievements goes to George W. Bush. But the new president has missed opportunities to shift how our government approaches these problems.

Many of the campaign aides who helped craft Obama's forward-thinking foreign-policy vision remain in his inner circle, but are superseded by a group of veteran officials (Clinton, Gates, Petraeus, Holbrooke, National Security Adviser James Jones) whose commitment to new ideas varies. It remains to be seen how much they -- and the responsibilities of being president -- have shifted Obama's personal foreign-policy vision.

The stakes are high in Afghanistan not only on the merits but because success buys him the credibility to advance other foreign-policy initiatives that don't tend to go over well with domestic audiences: closing Guantánamo Bay, engaging Iran, pressuring Israel toward peace, reaching out to the Muslim community, and reducing nuclear weapons in America and the world. Even given the daunting odds, it is still possible that a new mode of foreign policy -- one that is executed by civilians and soldiers equally -- could spring from the crucible of Afghanistan.

The other scenario, though, is that using the military in Afghanistan as the central means of fighting terrorism leaves reform of law enforcement and intelligence out in the cold, hinders the transformation of the civilian agencies, and prevents Obama from spending resources on other projects. A failure in Afghanistan is a failure to change the way this country approaches foreign policy. Worse, if the next two years don't show an Afghan government that can handle basic governing and security, then all of Obama's ideas will be wrapped in that failure, hindering his ability to execute any of his other initiatives.

"We're not getting at the root issues," says Hoh, the former Foreign Service officer. "We don't like to admit that, in the case of Afghanistan, maybe our presence is making the situation worse. That maybe these people are fighting because they don't want to be occupied. ... Remember the film Red Dawn? All of us, we talked about it a lot, all of us always thought we'd be on the other side of Red Dawn -- we didn't think we'd be the ones with the attack helicopters. ... So it's a very humbling experience to realize, you know, we're the occupying power."

Hoh, who returned home from Afghanistan in September, had been stationed in Zabul province (think of the Appalachia of Afghanistan). His predecessor there was Elizabeth Horst, a career Foreign Service officer who doesn't necessarily disagree with the facts of Hoh's local assessment. But she does think those dynamics can be changed.

"I don't feel like they had enough of a chance to see what real governance looks like, what it really looks like when a school runs for a full year, what it looks like when a clinic is stocked with enough medicine," Horst says. "I personally don't think we've given enough time for this new resource strategy to take place. When you think about it, this all started in March. We have such a short memory. Six months is not a long time to see whether increased civilians and increased military can really take off."

That's the gamble. Obama has chosen a middle course between his new vision and our old approach in Afghanistan. Even if his strategy succeeds, he could find himself right where he started: with 100,000 American troops in the middle of a civil war that has little to do with the future of the United States.

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