Saturday, November 22, 2014

President Obama’s New Strategy – what’s new, will it work?

Keynote Speech by H.E. Dr. Zahir Tanin
Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
to the United Nations
On President Obama’s New Strategy – what’s new, will it work?
Princeton University

Ambassador Vendrell ,
Professor Danspeckgruber,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honor to be here today to share my thoughts with you.

President Obama once wrote of himself, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” The new US strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is something of a blank screen as well. It contains components for success, and addresses the concerns of a wide variety of interests. However, it is open to interpretation, and the Administration’s level of commitment and resolve has yet to be tested. Today, I will offer an Afghan understanding of the strategy, as spelled out in policy documents and in President Obama’s own statement on March 27. I will also highlight some of the concerns that exist, and where its priorities should lie. Finally, I will outline a few areas where America cannot afford to minimize objectives.

How can we describe this new strategy?

While individual components of the American strategy are not entirely new, the strategy does combine them in a coherent, focused and fresh way. It puts increased attention on attainable short- and medium-term objectives, on a regional approach and on recognition of the centrality of the threat in Pakistan. Perhaps most importantly, it provides a clean break with the Bush years by giving President Obama ownership of the Afghan strategy, and marks a fresh beginning with a reinvigorated commitment, reflected in the troop increases and civilian surge.

The new American strategy was created to address the confluence of two factors: first, the increasingly precarious situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and second, the need to deal with possible domestic and international fatigue towards the continuing engagement, break with Bush’s policies and put new attention on a “forgotten war.”

Despite a generally welcoming reaction from Afghanistan, there is some ongoing concern among Afghans that the American plan aims to limit objectives, distance itself from important state-building goals and create space for an early exit strategy. The strategy is driven by a sense of urgency, since the new US Administration faces fatigue in some quarters both at home and abroad, and there are defeatists world-wide who seek to paint the fight in Afghanistan as hopeless or unnecessary.

However, President Obama himself laid out the central security interest that every country has in guaranteeing a stable, moderate and better-functioning Afghanistan. It must be apparent to the Obama Administration that any immediate efforts must be accompanied by sustained commitment; one without the other will only provide short-term disappointment leading to long-term failure.

The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan demands an urgent but long-term response. In Afghanistan, despite major achievements in the course of the last seven years, a sustainable situation is not yet on the horizon. The Taliban have taken advantage of international inattention to mount more frequent violent attacks on the international community and on Afghan civilians. Although there is not yet any serious danger of their returning to power, their role in disrupting stabilization efforts remains serious.

In Pakistan, the Taliban’s violent militarism is spreading out from sanctuaries along the border and beginning to penetrate to the heart of a once peaceful society. In addition, some in Pakistan are in denial about the severity of the threat. This threat is two-fold; first, we risk the spread of extremism and the choking of freedom in the region. Second, we risk these violent armed groups gaining increasing influence over a nuclear-armed state. It is important that Pakistan and the international community find a way to address the threat posed by the Taliban to the Pakistani state and the region.

The core objective of the new strategy is one that President Obama states clearly: “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” As the Obama Administration has acknowledged, success is significantly more complicated than just finding and capturing bin Laden. Al-Qaeda has had years to develop broad cooperative networks and stronghold in the region, and the effects of violence and extremism are now threats in their own right. To address all of this, the Obama Administration has taken a promising comprehensive view of the problem.

There are two integral components of President Obama’s core goal of defeating al-Qaeda: we must secure Afghanistan and stabilize Pakistan. The new strategy is correct in recognizing that the two countries face a common threat that needs to be addressed jointly in both countries. However, the creation of an imaginary “Af-Pak” entity for the purposes of practicality should not lead to oversimplification. Each country has its own context and its own problems. The many challenges in the region require a multifaceted and complicated response, not only by the US and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan but also through a regional approach.

How can we secure Afghanistan?

Securing Afghanistan is a process that began in 2001, but has not yet succeeded in creating sustainable progress. Our reinvigorated efforts in Afghanistan need to be focused in three interconnected areas:

First, it is vital to halt and reverse the advances of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban cannot be allowed to regain control over the country; in addition to the reign of terror they imposed on Afghans, they also encouraged our territory to be used by al-Qaeda for the planning and execution of September 11th and other terrorist activities. Defeating the Taliban insurgency will require sustained and committed military involvement, but also political involvement through reconciliation and outreach to all Afghans, and economic development and job creation.

Second, strengthening the government, and rule of law, is essential, so that the Afghans can defend themselves and progress can be sustainable. Afghanistan is ready to take responsibility for its future. We need an improved framework where the government is empowered to fight corruption, dispense justice, provide basic services, and is held accountable to its citizens. Thus the elections planned for August will prove an important turning point; at stake are the legitimacy of national institutions and the strengthening of the democratic process.

And third, the Afghan people must be actively involved and invested in the stabilization process. Recent debates over civilian casualties and the growing perception among Afghans that their international allies are not truly committed to their security, now risk the alienation of the population. Winning the hearts and minds of people in Afghanistan would be the most important strategic asset for success.

Nevertheless, as Richard Holbrooke recently said, and I quote, “If Afghanistan had the best government on earth, a drug-free culture and no corruption; it would still be unstable if the situation in Pakistan remained as today. That is an undisputable fact.”

How can we stabilize Pakistan?

Although international military operations are concentrated in Afghanistan, the insurgency trains and regroups in Pakistan. Stabilizing Pakistan will thus require us to, first and foremost, eliminate these terrorist sanctuaries. This can be accomplished by a more coordinated military and non-military efforts by the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This requires the wholehearted cooperation of the Pakistani military, intelligence and civilian powers. The Obama strategy recognizes the critical threat posed to the Pakistani state and the region by militant elements. Pakistan must be helped to recognize this as well, and all Pakistani entities must be ready to fully dedicate themselves to the fight against these elements.

As the new US strategy indicates, in addition to these steps to be taken in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States will have to actively encourage the involvement of all stakeholders towards a coordinated international response. The security of Afghanistan and the stability of Pakistan depend on the two countries cooperating with each other and with the region to face a common threat. This cooperation will be impossible without the direct and pro-active role of the United States, NATO and all countries fighting terrorism in the region. In addition, the security of the wider region – including India, Iran, Central Asian states, China, Russia and other countries – is also tightly interwoven with the defeat of Al-Qaeda, the establishment of a secure Afghanistan and stable Pakistan, and the creation of a new basis for cooperation towards a collective security system.

A regional approach, such as that spelled out in the new US strategy, must change the negative and disruptive patterns of the region into positive and cooperative ones. It will then be possible for the United States to facilitate a longer-term exchange between Afghan neighbors to identify shared economic interests, to engage a new diplomatic push, and to implement confidence-building measures to address legitimate security concerns in the region.

Can the strategy succeed?

The strategy provides a solid basis for progress, but its success will depend on a number of factors. As a start, the United States and its allies must be willing to commit the resources, attention and time necessary to achieve sustainable progress. It will take time to build a strong, self-sufficient Afghan state, which is the strongest hope of defeating al-Qaeda. Many of the necessary measures in the coming years, such as the expansion of the Afghan National Army and Police, will be financially untenable without the assistance of the international community. In addition, the strategy must use the suggested benchmarks to measure progress both in the short and the longer term, and be flexible enough to adapt when targets are not reached. Thirdly, It is important that President Obama truly engage the governments and publics of NATO nations and of our region in order to coordinate the efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Most importantly, the United States must truly address and combat negative perceptions by demonstrating a sustained commitment to success in Afghanistan. Public opinion in the US, in Europe and in Afghanistan and the wider region will be key to the strategy’s success or failure. The Obama white paper alludes to the “diplomatic push” that will be necessary to create national, international and regional cooperation and to collectively address the security and development challenges in the region. This diplomatic push is a crucial part of the strategy.

We must all have a good understanding of the key role played by public perception in the success or failure of our joint work. The strategy for Afghanistan’s success must be sustainable, and this will require the trust and support of the Afghan people. Thus, the Obama administration and the international community at large must maintain and demonstrate an unambiguous commitment to Afghanistan, even in the face of some domestic and international pressures to seek a short-sighted exit. If the Taliban are given any indication that the resolve of the international community is weakening, they will assume they can out-wait the West as the Mujahidin out-lasted the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The Afghan people must be confident in the continuing support of the international community before they will be willing to trust us with their futures.

The international community and the United States already have a large commitment to Afghanistan through the Bonn process and Afghanistan and the region are becoming increasingly important on the world stage. It is the focus of the increasing global multilateralism, and it is the center of the international fight against terrorism. From Russia to India, from China to the doors of Europe, we are in the center of a region where the geopolitics of the future world are in play. In a global fight against terrorism centered in our region we will need the patience of the “Cold War” if we are determined to succeed. President Obama’s strategy opens the door for success; now we must see whether America and the international community will walk through it.