Pity the journalists assigned to cover President Barack Obama's scheduled announcement on Wednesday of the next steps in Afghanistan. Their editors are pressing them to answer the question of how many troops the Obama administration will announce are coming home in the next year-an important question, indeed. But as a result the policy debate will most likely only scratch the surface of the issues in play and what's at stake for America in Afghanistan and the broader region.
The range of troops likely to come home between now and the end of 2012 is fairly well known-somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000-and in any case the announced withdrawal will come with the caveat that it will depend on "conditions on the ground." This "conditions-based" phrase is rarely precisely defined in order to provide maximum wiggle room.
Unfortunately, the announcement will most likely be received with catchphrases and clichés by analysts that substitute for a serious policy discussion. Opponents on one side of President Obama will probably accuse him of "cutting and running." When you see this phrase, remember that sloganeering and cheerleading are no substitute for hard-nosed analysis in the tough task of assessing whether the United States is matching resources to meet threats in a coherent strategy.
Other policy advocates will say President Obama is "precipitously" withdrawing troops. Note that the word "precipitous" is rarely used these days except in constructing straw man arguments about wars that have lasted more than twice as long as World War II.
From another angle, a group of President Obama's critics on Afghanistan will raise concerns about the continued costs and duration of the war. But then this group will probably fail to provide a compelling alternative to what the Obama administration proposes-not offering sufficient answers to questions about the risks of civil war, regional war, and threats from terrorist networks. Nor is this camp likely to marshal the domestic political support needed to implement a real-world alternative that shifts administration policy.
When President Obama ends the national security wonks' most recent favorite guessing game and closes the door on the minor media frenzy of speculation by announcing how many troops are coming home, the speech will likely leave many important policy questions unanswered. As with President Obama's recent Middle East speeches, it is more important to have an actual strategy that the team is implementing than deliver a good speech. As with those Middle East speeches, the Obama team should be helping President Obama fill in the gaps in his policy on five key fronts:
1. What's the way forward in Pakistan?
U.S.-Pakistan bilateral ties have reached new lows in the weeks following the significant achievement of killing Osama bin Laden, and the United States needs to realign its Pakistan strategy to face new realities. Before President Obama announced the current surge in Afghanistan, officials in his administration recognized that little progress is sustainable in Afghanistan as long as Pakistan provides a safe haven to the militant groups the United States is trying to defeat.
In many ways, the Afghanistan war is the sideshow to the main event next door to its east: Pakistan. Take a look at the vital statistics. Pakistan has more than 170 million people, a nuclear arsenal estimated at more than 100 that doubled since 2007, and a combustible brew of terrorist extremist groups that has used its territory to attack neighbors and plot attacks in America and Europe. Afghanistan has about 30 million people, divided and warring factions, and a presence of perhaps 100 Al Qaeda affiliated fighters, according to estimates from CIA Director and the next Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Despite the higher stakes in Pakistan, several people working on these issues in the Obama administration told us that Pakistan has received less attention in the regular interagency reviews and strategic planning sessions compared to Afghanistan. Recall that in the December 2009 speech by President Obama at West Point, he did not outline a clear path forward in Pakistan. Post-Obama announcement, the administration should launch a new process to review all policy options on Pakistan and map out a new path to shape the strategic calculus of its leaders.
2. How grave are the threats posed by terror networks today in Afghanistan and Pakistan versus new threats in the Middle East and other parts of the world?
One question that remains unanswered nearly 10 years after September 11 is whether the United States is dedicating its resources to the places that pose the most urgent and imminent security threats. One natural consequence of engaging in several wars at the same time around the world-wars that lack a clear and precise definition of what "mission accomplished" looks like-is that it creates a certain path dependency inertia that makes change or reduction difficult. In this situation, issues like justifying sunk costs and ensuring national pride and honor become as important as (if not more important than) the task of matching resources to meet threats.
Administration officials and intelligence analysts argue that the threats posed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al-Shabab in Somalia are more imminent than the threats from Al Qaeda affiliates in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This congressional testimony earlier this spring highlighted the new types of terrorist threats as well as opportunities for U.S. policy that could be emerging as a result of the Middle East uprisings.
No matter what President Obama announces on troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, this question of making sure that U.S. national security institutions are focused on the most urgent threats and not getting trapped in a policy path dependency is crucial.