Obama’s First 100 Days — Federico Manfredi: Afghanistan

Federico Manfredi’s article “Rethinking U.S. Policy in Afghanistan” appeared in the winter “Dear Mr. President” issue of World Policy Journal. His grade for the new administration’s first 100 days follows this update.

In his first 100 days, President Barack Obama has been on the right track in dealing with both Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has emphasized that the main interest of the United States in the region is making sure that Al Qaeda cannot attack the United States, its interests, and its allies, thus returning a sense of purpose to a mission that was sinking under the weight of nation building and counterinsurgency.

Secondly, while the previous administration illogically handled U.S. policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan separately, Obama chose to integrate the two, given that the Taliban insurgency has been spilling back and forth across a border that is poorly marked and practically impossible to monitor. This move will certainly increase coordination between Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad.

Even more importantly, Obama has declared himself willing to reach out to the moderate factions within the Taliban movement and has stressed that the United States must devise a sound exit strategy rather than follow the current pattern of perpetual drift. For all these reasons, Obama deserves praise, especially since he faces opposition in Washington from people who do not understand the realities on the ground in Pashtun territories and still see negotiating with the Taliban as anathema.

While Obama has already passed the challenging stage of telling the American people that he is willing to negotiate with the Taliban, he has yet to deliver the message in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama should address the Pashtun people clearly and directly, spelling out the security interests of the United States and making a careful distinction between those Taliban whose main concern is Pashtun self-rule and those who support international terrorism.

But Obama must also make it clear that he understands the interest of traditional Pashtun communities, and those of the Taliban militants that control them—which are quite different from the interests of Al Qaeda.

The Taliban movement is not monolithic, and if Mullah Omar and other radical commanders are not interested in dialogue, others will step in to fill their shoes. Most importantly, the Pashtun people would recognize that Obama offered the Taliban a reasonable deal, and the stubbornness of those who refuse to negotiate would only undermine their popular support and isolate them politically.

The time is ripe for a bold new approach to counterterrorism, one that stresses knowledge and reasoning over impulsiveness and military bravado.

Convincing the Taliban that it is in their interest to halt their insurgent campaign and turn against Al Qaeda will not be an easy task. But this would be the most reasonable policy the United States could adopt to stabilize both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and thus undermine Al Qaeda’s presence in the region.

For his first 100 days, President Obama deserves a grade of…

On Afghanistan: A –

Federico Manfredi is a specialist on insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was an advisor to the Belgian foreign affairs committee on policy in the Middle East and Central Asia.

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