The president and his national security team have outlined an ambitious strategy for Afghanistan. But if they hope to meet their July 2011 target date for the beginning of a U.S. drawdown, they will have to navigate some unavoidable roadblocks along the way.
The first -- and most pressing -- is the continued weakness of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Some commentators have written that the withdrawal of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah from the second round of elections this past fall has cleared the way for Karzai -- with U.S. support and aid -- to begin necessary reforms. Richard Miniter and Sebastian Gorka, for instance, opined, "With Abdullah Abdullah's gracious concession in the disputed election, Afghanistan has gained a legitimate Pashtun leader in Harmid Karzai and a vigorous loyal opposition in Dr. Abdullah."
A less sanguine view is that a "loyal opposition" in the Afghan context has usually meant one that does not make an active effort to overthrow the central government, in return for being ignored by Kabul. The fact that the non-Pashtun regions of the north grudgingly consented to Karzai occupying the presidential palace in Kabul does not mean that these regions will easily accept orders, directives or personnel appointed by the center. Compounding the problem is President Barack Obama's own call at West Point for bypassing corrupt centers of power in Afghanistan to deal directly with ministries and governors. Is the overriding goal to strengthen the constitutional chain of command as it exists on paper, or to focus on who can deliver measurable progress on the ground?
If the latter, there is a strong incentive for regions to show that they are more effective partners for facilitating the timetable for U.S. withdrawal than a corrupt and ineffective Kabul, where a cabinet is still not yet confirmed and where funds remain unspent by ministries. And in areas where central government influence is weak or nonexistent, will local or tribal leaders be empowered to raise and equip "regional security forces"?