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The Afghan Plan, "Mr. Obama's War"

As I write this, it's been about 72 hours since President Obama official announced his new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.

The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that this is now "Mr. Obama's war."

He says it's "America's war," but we in the media have anointed it otherwise. He owns it.

Beyond that, no one I've spoken to has a clear view of what it actually is, or does. This plan tries to be all things to all people, and, as such, is proving to be a Rorschach test, eliciting varied responses from my subjects depending on their prior administration or combat experience.

Summary of said plan:

  • It goes after terrorists with a big conventional troop surge (17,000 soldiers and Marines), and a small special operations forces surge. (Ballpark of a thousand, give or take. They'll do the same "take out the bad guys" missions they have been doing since 2001. And those reports they stopped operations for a couple weeks in January because they were killing too many civilians? Not true. The SOF guys have been just as round-the-clock busy as those Predator drones bombing the tribal areas of Pakistan.)
  • The plan helps train more Afghans to do their own hunting, with another 4,000 U.S. trainers to teach them. (These guys are actually coming from an Army combat brigade, so this should be a bit of a head-twisting mission for them. They're used to fighting, not teaching how to fight.)
  • It ropes Pakistan into greater cooperation going after said terrorists in Pakistan's tribal areas neighboring Afghanistan (where al Qaeda and the Taliban shelter/summer/what-have-you), with a carrot-and-stick approach. Washington gives them a billion-and-a-half dollars in non-military aid for the next five years, and Pakistan stops looking the other way when Taliban leader Mullah Omar takes tea at the finest hotel in Quetta (I am only partly speaking tongue-in-cheek.)
  • It promises a sort of "nation-building-lite" plan of helping raise Afghanistan (and the Pakistani tribal regions) from third world to maybe "second world" status. A "civilian surge" of hundreds of State Department employees and civilian aid workers and development specialists would provide everything from civic guidance, to humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan — basically teaching President Hamid Karzai's government how to take care of its own. Washington would fund a similar development drive in Pakistan, again, to get locals to trust their own government to provide services, so they don't turn to the Taliban etc. for help.

    President Obama explained and defended his Afghanistan agenda in an exclusive interview on the CBS News broadcast Face The Nation on Sunday. Click the video player below to watch Dozier's report.

    Here come the critics.

    Those who do believe the Iraq surge worked seem to fall into one of two camps:

    In the first, people say this plan sounds good — because it's built on the same principles, i.e., it promises major firepower and manpower to go after the bad guys, and become "Papa Bear" to the good guys — keeping them safe, fed, healthy, schooled, employed, etc., and teaching the locals to do that for themselves, so Washington can eventually remove those billion-dollar U.S. training wheels and get out of town. But this camp isn't convinced Mr. Obama's plan goes far enough in terms of money or manpower.

    The second camp is the skeptical "the-Iraq-surge-worked, but-you-can't-do-that-in-Afghanistan" crowd. They point out that Iraq already had a tradition of central government (it was a blood-thirsty dictatorship, but it wasn't Afghanistan's "all tribes, all the time.") It had an existing infrastructure of roads, water systems and power lines (crumbling, sure, but something to build on.) And it had natural resources that the U.S. actually wanted to bring to market (oil, not opium.) Many of these skeptics believe turning Afghanistan around would take more time, money, and American lives than this fight is worth. They go more for the "wall it off and bomb it approach," more politely known as "containment."

    Then, there are the died-in-the-wool Bushies (generally, those who've left office; not the holdovers still employed by it.)

    Their collective take, as much as I've been able to glean, is that this is what we were already doing – just a bit more of it. Welcome, and good luck, because there are certain inevitable truths about this part of the world. They say the tribal chiefs will make a deal, and then turn on you. Your special operations forces will take out a legitimate target but al Qaeda will get there first with cameras and make it look like you took out another wedding party, and the locals will hate you. You will clear the Taliban out of a town and you'll leave Afghan forces behind to protect it, and then you'll find those forces (too green, or maybe too open to being bought off) will surrender the space to the enemy, and any Afghan who dared to work with you when you were last there will be killed for it.

    On the Pakistan front – Bushies to Obama folks: you think we didn't try carrot and stick? The Pakistani intelligence services (spies) helped create the Taliban, which means they're good at lying. Good luck proving they meant to let the bad guys get away. And when you threaten to take away the Pakistani government's aid, to punish them, and they fold, they'll look like American stooges, so you'll weaken them. And by the way, the Pakistani leaders who'd suffer the most from the cut off in aid often have little control over their intelligence services, so you're punishing the wrong guy.

    And the Bushies' take on using the State Department to build those roads, hospitals, schools, what-have-you? They tried that too. They found that the State Department has a terrible time filling hardship posts in general, and war zone posts in particular. (That's why the military ended up doing so much nation-building in Iraq. There was no one else, at least not in the numbers the job required.)

    The Obama team knows this, so newly minted Obama Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy has called for the formation of a U.S. Civilian Response Corps — a body whose sole responsibility would be to handle crises like this one.

    The Bush administration tried something like that too. NATIONAL SECURITY PRESIDENTIAL DIRECTIVE/NSPD-44 created an organization within the State Department devoted to "improved coordination, planning, and implementation for reconstruction and stabilization assistance for foreign states and regions at risk of, in, or in transition from conflict or civil strife." But so far, only a couple thousand positions have been funded.

    So will any of this "new" plan work, based as it is on some tried-and-true ideas that worked in a country very different than Afghanistan, but thus far have failed to work in the target country? Is it simply that they weren't done on the proper scale?

    Mr. Obama says he's got to try. He says they'll get through the Afghan elections next fall and then look at it all again, to make sure it's working.

    In that way, he sounds a lot like the last guys in Iraq — in that failure in Afghanistan is not an option, and if it's not working, he owns it, and will do whatever's needed to fix it.

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