Friday, March 27, 2009

President Obama lays out Middle East strategy

By Carol Gee

President Barack Obama laid out U.S. foreign policy for areas of the Middle East in a speech Friday morning. The transcript can be seen in its entirety on Swampland at Time Magazine, "Obama goes to war,"by Michael Scherer. HT Twitter. The speech will be analyzed in a dozen different languages all over the world. Here is my take in English from Texas:

Troop levels -- To train Afghan security forces, the U.S. will deploy 4,000 troops to Afghanistan. These forces will join the 17,000 additional troops sent to fight in the south and east earlier this year. Training the Afghan military and police forces will be "for the first time fully resourced." That is a relatively limited military build-up in the overall scope of our military presence in the region. To quote:

Every American unit in Afghanistan will be partnered with an Afghan unit, and we will seek additional trainers from our NATO allies to ensure that every Afghan unit has a coalition partner. We will accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan Army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 so that we can meet these goals by 2011 – and increases in Afghan forces may very well be needed as our plans to turn over security responsibility to the Afghans go forward.

Civilians on the ground -- The remainder of U.S. effort in Afghanistan will involve a substantial increase in the nonmilitary effort. It will include "agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers, to "develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs." Secretary Clinton will "seek support from partners and allies next week in the Hague." The President emphasized the primacy of a civilian effort, an investment in the future of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, explaining,

That is why my budget includes indispensable investments in our State Department and foreign assistance programs. These investments relieve the burden on our troops. They contribute directly to security. They make the American people safer. And they save us an enormous amount of money in the long run – because it is far cheaper to train a policeman to secure their village or to help a farmer seed a crop, than it is to send our troops to fight tour after tour of duty with no transition to Afghan responsibility.

The speech was comprehensive and wide ranging. Much of it was to explain why the strategies were chosen. It was, at its core, a speech for everyone laying out plans and expectations for all who will be participating. A variety of things that went wrong in the past were addressed: lack of accountability for spending, no-bid contracts, and wasteful reconstruction will be remedied with "increase[d] funding for a strong Inspector General at both the State Department and USAID, and include robust funding for the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction." Specifics to combat corruption in Afghanistan were mentioned, such as benchmarks that will insure that international assistance goes to the Afghan people. The President pledged to set metrics for our own government "to measure progress and hold ourselves accountable."

President Obama also discussed his ideas about the Taliban movement at some length, differentiating between those who are "irreconcilable" and those who are not. There was a plan for reconciliation that specified, as the President put it,

There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated. But there are also those who have taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course. That is why we will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province. As their ranks dwindle, an enemy that has nothing to offer the Afghan people but terror and repression must be further isolated. And we will continue to support the basic human rights of all Afghans – including women and girls.

Nations all over the world will be asked to join the U.S. in the Afghanistan war against al Qaeda. That is how it is being billed. Major increases in nation building for both Afghanistan and Pakistan is an important aspect of the administration's strategy. Alliance building will be a major part of the U.S strategy. Other nations must see that their security interests are at stake unless there is a clearly concerted effort by any nation vulnerable to an attack from the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. To quote the President,

But this is not simply an American problem – far from it. It is, instead, an international security challenge of the highest order. Terrorist attacks in London and Bali were tied to al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan, as were attacks in North Africa and the Middle East, in Islamabad and Kabul. If there is a major attack on an Asian, European, or African city, it – too – is likely to have ties to al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan. The safety of people around the world is at stake.

When the President travels abroad next week he will be asking for specifics from other nations:

From our partners and NATO allies, we seek not simply troops, but rather clearly defined capabilities: supporting the Afghan elections, training Afghan Security Forces, and a greater civilian commitment to the Afghan people. For the United Nations, we seek greater progress for its mandate to coordinate international action and assistance, and to strengthen Afghan institutions.

And finally, together with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region – our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China. None of these nations benefit from a base for al Qaeda terrorists, and a region that descends into chaos. All have a stake in the promise of lasting peace and security and development.

The futures of both Pakistan and Afghanistan are clearly linked in the President's mind. Each is vulnerable to what goes wrong within its neighbor's borders, all having a shared responsibility for security. A "standing, trilateral dialog" with regular meetings among the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates will lead the effort that will be marked by "enhanced intelligence sharing and military cooperation along the border, while addressing issues of common concern like trade, energy, and economic development." The President emphasized over and over that solutions are not merely military. To quote:

To enhance the military, governance, and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have to marshal international support. And to defeat an enemy that heeds no borders or laws of war, we must recognize the fundamental connection between the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan – which is why I've appointed Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to serve as Special Representative for both countries, and to work closely with General David Petraeus to integrate our civilian and military efforts.

Pakistan's needs for assistance have a very high priority with the President, who also expects the country to meet certain responsibilities. This is what he said, in no uncertain terms,

The terrorists within Pakistan's borders are not simply enemies of America or Afghanistan – they are a grave and urgent danger to the people of Pakistan. Make no mistake: al Qaeda and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within. It is important for the American people to understand that Pakistan needs our help in going after al Qaeda.

. . . That is why we must focus our military assistance on the tools, training and support that Pakistan needs to root out the terrorists. And after years of mixed results, we will not provide a blank check. Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders. And we will insist that action be taken – one way or another – when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets.

President Obama then expressed support for Congressional action to assist Pakistan with "resources that will build schools, roads, and hospitals, and strengthen Pakistan's democracy." To quote further:

I am calling upon Congress to pass a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by John Kerry and Richard Lugar that authorizes $1.5 billion in direct support to the Pakistani people every year over the next five years . . . I'm also calling on Congress to pass a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Maria Cantwell, Chris Van Hollen and Peter Hoekstra that creates opportunity zones in the border region to develop the economy and bring hope to places plagued by violence. And we will ask our friends and allies to do their part – including at the donors conference in Tokyo next month.
All in all it it is an impressive plan. It is a rather large departure from that of the previous administration. The key elements appear to be redirecting the policy from Iraq to Afghanistan/Pakistan, minimizing the number of additional troops committed to Afghanistan, changing the military-only strategy to diplomacy, nation building, development, and accountability. In the end the biggest thing is that the President fully intends to engage everyone around the world who is willing to help end the conflict, though there was no time line included. It is too bad that the incursion into Iraq, costing over 4000 U.S. military casualties, set us back all those years and dollars. Not to mention the thousands and thousands of Iraqi lives lost. President Obama's only alternative, it seems was to start over with a very different strategy.

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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