Afghanistan's Moving Parts: Why Obama's Focus Shifted from Nation Building to Army Building

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Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

President Obama and Army Gen. David Petraeus, April, 2011.

It was inevitable that Barack Obama's decision to draw down 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer would be controversial. Most Democrats — as well as a growing cohort of Republicans and, according to the polls, a majority of Americans — were looking for a bigger, faster pullout. The Pentagon was hoping for something slower. General David Petraeus, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, must be particularly disappointed that the counterinsurgency strategy that has made progress in the Taliban's southern heartland won't be attempted in the rougher terrain of Afghanistan's east. The problem, as ever, is that there are no clear paths to success and far too many moving pieces in Afghanistan. The President took into account the trajectories of all those pieces and made some difficult choices that may not prove unwise.

In the past year, the military situation on the ground in Afghanistan has gotten better, but our relations with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan have gotten worse. The Afghan national-security forces have become stronger and the Taliban weaker. Osama bin Laden is dead and his network crippled, but the U.S. economy languishes, and the national debt is soaring. All of these were factors in Obama's decision, but some were stronger than others. You don't hear much about strengthening the Afghan central government from U.S. officials anymore, but you do hear a lot about strengthening, and maintaining, the Afghan security forces so the Taliban can't take over the country. Nation building has been replaced by army building, a difficult but somewhat more plausible goal.

"The Taliban no longer own the districts around Kandahar city," Petraeus told me a few weeks ago. "They've had to move much farther from population centers ... to stage their operations," which are most often individual attacks on Afghan government officials and facilities. This is significant, if iffy, progress. Petraeus said his forces are now trying to solidify those gains, training local police and militias, trying to build governance from the bottom up (rather than down from the corrupt top in Kabul). But there is real trouble in the east, where the Haqqani Taliban network, which gets direct support from Pakistan, still can launch aggressive small-unit operations against U.S. forces. The general said he hoped to make a major push in the east starting this fall.

That may still happen, but not at the strength Petraeus — who will leave Afghanistan this July — had hoped. This is the most controversial piece of Obama's decision: "The President has decided against an all-out COIN [counterinsurgency] campaign in the east," a senior Administration official told me. There are both logic and frustration involved here. COIN has helped protect and secure the population in flat, densely populated areas like Baghdad and perhaps Kandahar. Afghanistan's eastern border area has fewer people and lots of daunting mountains; it would be a long, hard slog, at best. The real frustration, and anger, in the U.S. military is that our putative ally Pakistan is largely responsible for the carnage and destruction in the east. (It may turn out that Petraeus has better access to the bad guys across the border in his next job, director of Central Intelligence.)

The war in Afghanistan has always been mostly about Pakistan and is even more so now. After the successful bin Laden raid, an embarrassed Pakistani military has turned vehemently anti-American. "There is real danger of a top-down coup," says Bruce Riedel, the former CIA officer who led Obama's first Afghan review. The core Pakistani command group could replace the current army leader, General Ashfaq Kayani — who is American-trained — with an officer who has Islamist sympathies. This conservative tilt means that the Pakistani military is likely to cling to its traditional strategy. It will use the Taliban to deny India a dominant position in Afghanistan. And it will continue to thwart U.S. and Afghan efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.

In the long term, the most plausible anti-Taliban force is the Afghan National Army. The ANA ain't the Marines, but it is composed mostly of non-Pashtun Afghans who've been fighting the Taliban and its antecedents for centuries. With the U.S. attempt to woo Pakistan failing, the President's message to the Pakistanis should have been clear: We will leave Afghanistan slowly, carefully, but not completely. We will continue to train and support the Afghan military. It will be very hard for your Taliban to march into Kabul. It's time for you, finally, to support a real peace.

This is too complex, and expensive, a message to win much favor in America. It isn't aggressive enough to impress those who still think a military solution is possible. But it's probably the least worst course of action.