Skepticism Greets Obama's Speech in Afghanistan

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

President Obama addresses the nation on his Afghanistan strategy at the military academy West Point in New York on Dec. 1, 2009

In his long-awaited strategy speech for Afghanistan, President Barack Obama clearly and forcibly repeated his objectives from his original plan in March — denying al-Qaeda a safe haven and reversing Taliban momentum. But he added one detail that stunned many Afghans. All this would be achieved within 18 months, at which point, it is assumed, the Afghan government would be able to stand on its own and the Afghan security forces — who are a far cry from the disciplined rows of uniformed cadets who faced Obama on Tuesday evening — would be able to take on the job of securing the battle-torn nation. West Point cadets are some of the smartest and best-trained soldiers in the U.S. It is a blithe denial of the very real difficulties on the ground in Afghanistan.

The 18-month timeline came as a shock to many Afghans, who had hoped for — and who had believed in — previous statements by world leaders that the international community was in it for the long haul. Even if development projects continue long after, fear is rife that the Taliban will simply wait out the surge, only to return re-energized and triumphant once the numbers of international forces have dwindled, even if it is only a return to present numbers. As for those Afghans sitting on the fence, they now see less security in joining the government's side, which may once again be abandoned when the U.S. focuses its attention elsewhere.

Pakistanis, too, are likely to take the 18-month timeline as a signal that they should continue to hedge their bets and support the Afghan Taliban in the tribal areas along the border in order to foil a much feared expansion of Indian influence on their northwestern flank. At the moment U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan believe they can continue the battle despite Pakistan's tolerance of the Afghan Taliban leadership within its borders. Should Pakistani policy move toward active aid and support, however, the task of defeating the Afghan insurgency would become impossibly difficult.

Obama's statement that he would not pursue nation-building, though most likely tailored for his domestic audience, appeared to Afghans as little more than a commitment for greater military involvement to the detriment of development. "Sending in more troops is not a bad idea," says Abdul Jabar Sabit, Afghanistan's former attorney general. "But it is not the remedy for a deteriorating situation." If anything, he points out, a military surge should be used only after there is a government in place that is worth protecting. If Afghans are not committed to their government, if they don't believe its promises and if they don't see that it can deliver, the deployment of more foreign soldiers will be a waste of time, and lives. "One of the reasons that the Taliban are able to get a lot of assistance from the people is that the local authorities are corrupt," says Sabit. "Let's fight them first, then the Americans can come in and fight the terrorists."

Of course, Obama did speak of strengthening governance, though with a pointed message that "the days of providing a blank check [to Afghan President Hamid Karzai] are over." Still, how he would do so, and what would happen if Karzai's government did not clean up its corrupt ways, was unclear. Officials say the most likely punishment would be a withdrawal of U.S. and foreign funding to those ministries that are clearly corrupt or that underperform. As for development, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking on Monday in New York, said Washington's "goals in Afghanistan include providing the government with the support that it needs to take full responsibility for its own country. That makes civilian efforts as vital as military operations and of longer duration." To do so, she and Obama envision a "civilian surge" of agriculturists, rule-of-law experts and development strategists that should be in place by early 2010. As part of that expansion, the Kabul embassy has plans to expand into a neighboring compound and has already signed a long-term lease on property designated to be a new consulate for the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Plans for another consulate, in the western city of Herat, are also in the works.

But for the past eight years, foreign experts have been tasked with similar, expensive development objectives with little return. There needs to be a renewed commitment toward enabling Afghans to do the work themselves, without having to rely on foreign advisers. That will take more than 18 months and require substantial investment not just in facilities and pilot projects, but also in actual and widespread training and education. Special representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Afghanistan Kai Eide emphasized in a frank talk with journalists on Tuesday that the foreign community should focus on a transition strategy, rather than an exit strategy. "If we are to deliver services to the people, it can't be done by international parallel structures. It has to be done by Afghan institutions. That's going to take time, but the longer we wait, the more time it will take."

While schools have been a much-touted success in Afghanistan, the reality is that education and literacy levels are abysmally low. It matters little how many aid dollars are spent on school buildings when the teachers inside operate at a reading level only slightly higher than that of their students. A fraction of the money spent on expensive foreign development consultants or military assets could be invested in nationwide literacy programs with far greater returns. For those who complain that education programs take at least a generation to mature, imagine what Afghanistan would be like today if there had been widespread investment in literacy and education eight years ago. There would be not only fewer complaints about Afghan capacity, but also fewer problems with corruption, which flourishes when people lack education about their rights and venues of redress. "I'm sorry, Obama Administration, but your troop surge isn't going to work," says a senior U.N. official. "Unless you face up to the mistakes made in the early days, it's like polishing an apple that's rotten at the core."

Rafiullah Shavzkhil, an employee at the Ministry of Finance, worries that focusing on the number of foreign troops, rather than the quality of their Afghan experience and intelligence, is as much a mistake as not sending troops at all. Twice his uncle, a prominent member of his community, has been detained by U.S. forces (once at Guantánamo for five years) due to false information planted by rivals, says Shavzkhil. "The problem with foreign forces is in the system, not in the numbers. If the U.S. troops keep listening to the wrong guys, or if they don't check the information they are receiving, they will continue to harm innocent people, and that only makes the problem worse."

Perhaps the highest-risk strategy outlined in Obama's agenda is his hope that within 18 months, Afghan security forces will be able to take a greater role in protecting the country. When Karzai took a new oath of office at his inauguration ceremony in Kabul last month, he promised that by the end of his five-year term, Afghan security forces would be "capable of taking the lead in ensuring security and stability across the country." Accelerating the process in order to achieve the necessary number of well-trained Afghan soldiers — ideally estimated to be 134,000 troops, compared with the current 90,000 — by the summer of 2011 would require roughly 5,000 new recruits a month. Last month alone, the Ministry of Defense missed its recruiting goal by more than 2,000 troops, and attrition rates over the past year were 1 in 4.

And then there's remuneration. Both Afghan soldiers and police officers were recently granted a 40% pay rise, bringing the base salary for a new police officer or soldier to about $165 a month — almost on par with what the Taliban offer their fighters. Like many Afghans, many of the new army recruits are uneducated and illiterate, so it will be difficult to develop the capabilities that are essential for effectively running an army or a police force, such as seamless logistics planning, accurate weapons training or even clear police reports.

"Let me be clear: none of this will be easy," Obama told his audience. "The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will be an enduring test of our free society and our leadership in the world." In a stirring speech peppered with noble goals, firm resolve and idealism, that may have been his most concrete statement of the evening.