What's Next For Obama's Afghan-Pakistan Strategy?

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NPR's Robert Siegel speaks with James Dobbins, director of International Security and Defense Policy at the Rand Corporation. He talks about the U.S. policy in Afghanistan, and the White House assessment to be released this week.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

As we mentioned, later this week, we expect President Obama to report the results of an assessment of his Afghan and Pakistan policy. That report will come one year after Mr. Obama ordered an increase in U.S. forces in Afghanistan. No one's predicting a significant change of course.

James Dobbins is director of international security and defense policy at the RAND Corporation. He was a career diplomat and he also served as special envoy for Pakistan under President Bush and he joins us now. Welcome to the program once again.

Mr. JAMES DOBBINS (Director, RAND Corporation International Security and Defense Policy): Thank you.

SIEGEL: Since the Obama administration is expected to continue a present policy in Afghanistan, are there facts on the table that you've seen that demonstrate the success of the present policy?

Mr. DOBBINS: Well, I expect that the results of the review that's just been conducted are going to be cautiously optimistic with an emphasis on caution. I think there are some trends, including security in some of the areas where U.S. troops have been most heavily deployed, which are mildly encouraging. There are also negative trends in areas of the country where U.S. and NATO forces are thinner on the ground.

I think it's also important to look over the longer term, that is, Afghanistan since 2001 and there, by almost any measure with the important exception of security, things have gotten dramatically better.

SIEGEL: But the policy is not just about security. It's also about governance. Can one look at Afghanistan today and say that has improved dramatically?

Mr. DOBBINS: Well, it's certainly improved dramatically since 2001. And I think, you know, it's very interesting looking at how the Afghans look at their government. They're very concerned about its lack of confidence and lack of competence and its levels of corruption. And yet they're also, on balance, confident about the future, supportive of the government and supportive of Karzai.

In other words, they have realistic and modest expectations. They're not comparing Afghanistan to Switzerland, the way many of us do. They're comparing it to Turkmenistan or Tajikistan or Iran or Kyrgyzstan or, you know, in other words, they're comparing it to their own neighbors. And they're also comparing it to their recent history in the '80s and '90s. And Afghanistan is a lot more peaceful and, in most respects, more prosperous than it was in 2001 and in some of those other decades.

SIEGEL: Do you think, though, that the administration's review is going to measure what the Afghans have been able to accomplish with the U.S. there in force or what the Afghans can reasonably carry on with equal effectiveness if the U.S. were to start withdrawing its troops?

Mr. DOBBINS: Oh, I think that both are important. I think the current review is focused in part on improved performance of Afghan security forces, but also very heavily on what difference the additional, some 50,000 troops that Obama has ordered into Afghanistan have made. I think the review that'll take place next summer will focus more heavily on how quickly one can transition responsibilities to the Afghans with a view, as the administration has indicated, to fully turning over the combat role by 2014.

SIEGEL: The commentator and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb, has been very critical of the Obama administration Afghan policy. And he asks in a Daily Beast column today online whether anyone has questioned basic assumptions about what U.S. interests are in Afghanistan, whether the fate of Pakistan really hinges on developments in Afghanistan, or whether the threat of terrorism justifies the current troop levels.

Do you think that this is a policy review that has actually looked at fundamental questions or is all of that taken as self-evident, do you think?

Mr. DOBBINS: Well, the current is the fourth or fifth policy review conducted by the U.S. government in the last two or two and a half years and it's the third major review that the Obama administration has conducted. I think those questions were certainly examined in the review that was conducted last year, the review that preceded the decision to reinforce troop levels in Afghanistan.

If you read Bob Woodward's excellent account of that review, all of those issues were debated very vigorously and there was certainly strong views, including some views that were consistent with Les Gelb's take on this that were espoused. In the end, the president made the decisions he did, but he certainly didn't do it on the basis of an absence of review and an absence of other options.

SIEGEL: James Dobbins, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. DOBBINS: Pleasure.

SIEGEL: Mr. Dobbins is now director of international security and defense policy at the RAND Corporation.

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