The strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that President Obama announced Friday changes some of the Bush Administration's goals, but also recommits the United States to an extensive and long-term military and civilian effort to establish security and help Afghans create a stable society.
The eagerly awaited strategy makes the top priority defeating al-Qaida and related terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and allies, and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists," he said.
But the president also said the United States will lead an international effort to bring more civilian assistance to Afghanistan, to train the country's new security forces and to improve security for the Afghan people, partly by sending more U.S. troops. He also pledged one-point-five billion dollars in aid to Pakistan, each year for the next five years, to improve its security forces and economy.
Senior officials had said the Obama strategy would be more limited than the approach taken by former-President George W. Bush. But most elements of the Obama plan were also part of the Bush approach. One of the leaders of the Obama strategy review team, Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, says expectations of a more limited strategy were based on a misunderstanding. "I don't think we've lowered our sights or lowered expectations. What we've done is refocused. We are refocused on 'why are we there?' And we've rearticulated our core objectives and our core interests in a more defined strategy for how do we actually turn the tide and begin to make progress. And how do we build Afghan capacity to move toward a more self-reliant state," she said.
When Flournoy speaks of changing the focus of U.S. efforts, she is partly referring to the drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq, the troop buildup in Afghanistan and efforts through the budget process to provide more civilian assistance for Afghanistan.
President Obama put it this way. "For six years, Afghanistan has been denied the resources that it demands because of the war in Iraq. Now, we must make a commitment that can accomplish our goals," he said.
That would end the situation in which Afghanistan was what the top U.S. military officer has called an "economy of force" operation, in which the United States did what it could, after doing everything that was needed in Iraq. On Friday, that officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, who was deeply involved in the Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy review during both the Bush and Obama Administrations, declined to characterize the old strategy, but told reporters the new one is very different.
"The strength of this strategy is that it covers the entire ground, if you will, of the strategic requirements for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's the regional approach. It's the focus on the civilian piece of this. It's the rapid increase in growth of the Afghan security forces to take care of their own. It's the focus on the five-year program in Pakistan. So in that regard, to me, it is dramatically different from the strategy we had in the past," he said.
One analyst who has been critical of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan agrees, at least up to a point. "Yes, I do think it's new. And I think it represents an improvement over what the Bush Administration was doing," said Professor Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel who teaches at Boston University. He has criticized what he sees as the excessive American penchant for foreign military intervention and over-ambitious efforts to re-make other countries as western-style democracies. Bacevich says the Obama approach is more pragmatic than the Bush plan was, but he is not entirely convinced that it is different enough to work.
"I wonder if, even so, those objectives are beyond our ability to achieve. And I wonder even more why we need to achieve them. Our interests in Afghanistan are quite limited. The president emphasized that the core interest is to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a platform for the launching of terrorist attacks. I, myself, am very skeptical that achieving that limited objective requires the kind of presence and investment that the Obama plan foresees," he said.
Professor Bacevich says the key U.S. goal could be achieved without the nation-building aspect of the plan. President Obama has scaled that back but says some aspects are needed.
Former-President Bush spoke of wanting a democratic society to emerge in Afghanistan as an example for people all across the region. President Obama did not use the word "democracy" when speaking about Afghanistan on Friday, although he spoke of such democratic principles as elections and human rights.
And he said in order to keep terrorist groups out of Afghanistan for the long term, the United States must help the country establish what he called "a more capable and accountable" government.