President Obama's newly unveiled strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is drawing praise for outlining clear goals in the nearly seven-year war, but it's raising concerns over what it didn't mention: the role of a strong Afghan state.
Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says he sees two very positive things about the strategy.
"It defines U.S. objectives in Afghanistan," he says. "It's very clear now that it's all about al-Qaida."
The Afghan State
Dorronsoro, who focuses on South Asian issues at the University of Paris, says the announcement marks a new phase in the Afghan conflict, one in which "it's now clearly an American war."
The second positive thing Dorronsoro sees in the strategy is its emphasis on training Afghan security forces. He says a key question remains, though.
"It's not very clear what they want do about the Afghan state," he says.
Dorronsoro notes that President Obama made little mention of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai except to say that it was corrupt.
U.S. distrust of the Karzai government, Dorronsoro says, has led American officials to deal directly with the heads of government ministries or with local strongmen in the Afghan provinces. He says that weakens the state, whch will need to be strong when foreign troops eventually withdraw.
"The risk is that they will build a strong Afghan army, with only a weak state to control it. Even if it's not a democratic one," he says, "you need an Afghan state."
Police Training Hasn't Been Effective
Pratap Chatterjee, the managing editor of CorpWatch, a corporate watchdog group, says it's a positive development that the Obama strategy calls for more training of Afghan police, but he says there needs to be a plan for making that training effective. Chatterjee cites reports from the Government Accountability Office, the United Nations and the U.S. State Department showing that much of the training the U.S. paid for over the past six years has been ineffective.
A GAO report from last year found that despite almost $10 billion spent on police training and support since the 2001 U.S. invasion, 77 percent of the more than 400 Afghan National Police units were not capable of conducting operations on their own.
"The GAO's concern is, how are you going to make these training programs even bigger," Chatterjee says, "when they haven't been effective so far."
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says he generally likes the strategy, though he is concerned that its stress on counterterrorism — the focus on defeating al-Qaida — may give Afghans the sense that it doesn't concentrate enough on protecting the population.
"One other concern," he says, "is that it may not be enough," especially in terms of building up the Afghan security forces. Obama said his strategy aims to build an Afghan army of 134,000 troops and a police force of 82,000 by 2011. In a recent article, O'Hanlon has suggested that total Afghan forces may need to rise to 350,000 or even more.
O'Hanlon also says he is concerned that although the strategy calls for a big boost in economic development, it doesn't focus enough on coordinating that development among the various nations and donor groups at work in Afghanistan. That's something that may come up when the president goes to Europe next week to lobby for more NATO support.