Week in Review, 3/22-3/28

There’s a lot of news to cover on the American side this week. I don’t want this blog to deal exclusively with military/political events, though, so I’ll try to make next week’s post focus more on domestic news from Afghanistan.

This week’s big story, of course, is President Obama’s rollout of the new American strategy in Afghanistan, following the completion of a review headed by former CIA officer Bruce Riedel. The centerpiece of the strategy is the deployment of an additional 4,000 troops on top of the 17,000 already scheduled for deployment this year; the new troops will focus on training Afghanistan’s army, which is supposed to grow to 134,000 troops by 2011. The administration will also boost embassy staff by 50% and dispatch “agricultural and legal experts” in what is unfortunately being termed a “civilian surge“.

The takeaway points, at least as most prominent commentators seem to see them, are that Obama is taking a more holistic approach to the region–showing willingness to negotiate with the “moderate Taliban” and Iran, and recognizing Pakistan’s role–in addition to taking a harder line with the Karzai government. Riedel was very explicit that the United States would take no sides in the August elections. Some commentators, especially abroad, have laid more focus on the break with Bush’s approach; others have emphasized the dissatisfaction with Karzai, especially as officials like Richard Holbrooke make louder noises about corruption. (The Guardian also reported that the U.S. plans to plant a new chief executive in the government, parallel to Karzai; Holbrooke denies this.)

On the right, the Wall Street Journal seems to approve of the new course–which it describes as a break from the NATO-centric multilateralism of Bush’s approach–but worries that Obama won’t have the “fortitude” to withstand left-wing pressure for withdrawal. Speaking of that left-wing pressure, Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films calls the plan “not Quaker-inspired, but not neocon-inspired either” and suggests that negotiating with the Taliban will inevitably be part of our exit strategy. He argues that our presence in Afghanistan strengthens the Taliban, stressing this New York Times report about healing divisions between Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Meanwhile, Karzai seems to be laying the groundwork for negotiating, calling for the removal of some Taliban leaders–though not Mullah Omar–from the UN blacklist.

The Congressional reaction has been fairly warm, with Democrats applauding the more comprehensive approach and Republicans exulting in “surge” rhetoric. The approach seems to have played well with our allies, too; the EU plans to double its contingent of police trainers, while Japan has promised to pay the salaries of 80,000 Afghan police officers for six months. More importantly, Canadian politicians, in goverment and in opposition, have praised the strategy’s “regional approach” and “diplomatic component”. Of course, it’s very easy to talk about including Afghanistan in a regional strategy and less easy to put that into practice; this seems to be the concern of some of Obama’s critics, like Senator Feingold (D-WI). Others are concerned about the question of benchmarks; Obama has mentioned them but hasn’t laid them out in detail.

Among Afghanistan’s neighbors, Iran’s former President Mohammed Khatami compares the new American deployments to an “ugly man” who “makes a baby cry” and should just go away. Russia‘s deputy foreign minister rules out a Russian presence in Afghanistan–if that was ever on the table–and warns strongly against negotiating with terrorists. As for President Karzai himself, he calls the plan “better than we expected” and praises the emphasis on strengthening the national police force. That’s self-serving, of course, but Robert Templer of the ICG agrees and stresses the importance of having police “walking beats” rather than serving as “security auxiliaries”.

There’s been a great deal of speculation about factions within the administration. The New York Times, and others, portray Joe Biden as the advocate of a minimal approach–defeating al-Qaeda and maintaining basic stability–against the more maximalist faction, which includes the military commanders. Sarah Chayes, founder of the Arghand Cooperative, argues against such an approach here, claiming that minimalism–i.e., cooperating with warlords, turning a blind eye to governance issues, etc.–is just what we’ve practiced all along in Afghanistan. Ilan Goldenberg lays out the two sides here, and argues for a “middle ground” of investing more in non-military resources while eschewing nation-building.

Speaking of those warlords, one got his very own profile in the Journal this week. Gul Agha Shirzai, governor of Nangarhar and formerly governor of Kandahar, is a candidate for President of Afghanistan. Shirzai points to his success in suppressing the opium trade, as well as his negotiating skills, to make the case for himself. Joshua Foust of Registan calls it a “puff piece” and expresses skepticism about Shirzai’s record of keeping the peace in Nangarhar. My favorite quote:

“Every politician in Afghanistan is a thief, but our governor doesn’t take all the money for himself. He is building our city,” says Shafeeq Azizi, a 37-year-old shop owner in Jalalabad. “Why does it trouble me if he gets rich?”

This sounds a lot like what Bostonians used to say about Mayor Curley.

I’d like to have more news from the economic development side of things in the future, but I’m still looking for good sources. In the mean time, Congress is doing something relevant: Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) is proposing to create “Reconstruction Opportunity Zones” in Afghanistan and Pakistan that could ship goods to the U.S. duty-free, essentially attempting to use trade as a way to kick-start rebuilding. And while the supply routes for the newly deployed American troops are still a major point of concern, Tajikistan has begun construction on a railroad from Dushanbe to the Afghan border, over which NATO will be able to transport non-military supplies.

Since I’m currently having the depressing experience of realizing that important Afghanistan news has been generated while I have been writing this post, I’m going to stop here. Next week, I hope to talk a little more about some proposed alternative strategies and the Afghan reaction to the new plan.

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