With President Barack Obama's long awaited Afghan strategy plan now public the real test is at hand. According to Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center "Developing a strategy… is the easy part. Its implementation and execution that's the hard part. That's where things start to break down." Riedel, a former senior official at the CIA and the NSC, should know since he was heavily involved in drawing up the Obama administration's "Af-Pak" strategy last March.
After a three month long review by the president capped off by his speech at West Point Riedel says the war in Afghanistan "is now Obama's war." And Riedel, speaking to reporters this week, added another sobering thought: "wars consume presidencies," he said. Mr. Obama will have to show "that he is convinced that this war is worth fighting and that he has the right strategy to fight it." And Americans are not the only ones who need convincing.
Among a number of other constituencies, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan people also need to believe this is a workable plan. Ditto for the government and military in Pakistan. Riedel, noting America's 'now we are with you, now we are not' history with Pakistan said the Pakistani military was "cynical" about the U. S. as an ally. "They don't believe we have staying power."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had to defend the new strategy before Congressional skeptics also had to make the administration's case at NATO where she spoke to the perception America would not be in this for the long haul. In Brussels, Clinton said "I want to stress that speaking for the United States, our civilian commitment will continue long after our combat forces leave. It should be clear to everyone that we will not repeat the mistakes of the past."
Addressing the issue another way, Secretary Clinton recorded videos which could be seen via the internet or on mobile phones for audiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The two minute long messages were available in Arabic, Dari, English, Pashto and Urdu. In one Clinton said "the United States has a strong and steadfast interest in Pakistan's and Afghanistan's long-term security and stability."
And when dealing with President Karzai there are other issues to consider. While there is no question the Obama administration is tied to Karzai there remain many skeptics who question the Afghan leader's willingness and ability to fight corruption. Bruce Riedel says "Secretary Clinton, whether she likes it or not, has become Karzai's date for the next three years. And she's going to have to cajole, pressure, persuade Karzai to give us the best of Karzai."
A senior U.S. official who is knowledgeable about Afghanistan but who does not want to speak for attribution says "we and Karzai have completely different ideas of governance. He's busy trying to make deals with those who are powerful to get through the day with very little impact on stability in the country, except as it is defined in Kabul." Washington, this official says, has a different perspective. It looks at Afghanistan as a country in international institutional terms where "there is always a place to go to make a complaint about someone to someone else." In other words, Washington thinks governing in Afghanistan should be like it is everywhere else in the international community.
But, says this American official, "Karzai's sockets don't match our plugs." Put another way he thinks "we're not going to be much more successful in Afghanistan than the Afghan government is." If Karzai cannot overcome the rampant corruption which is the guiding principle of day to day governance in Afghanistan then it will not matter how many additional American troops are sent in to fight the Taliban.
Thus, in the coming weeks and months it will be just as important to watch the political developments in Afghanistan as it will be to keep tabs on the military's campaign. If Karzai is expecting us to stay for the long haul and we are expecting him to clean up his act then it will be the political side of the equation which will ultimately define victory in Afghanistan.