The Duck of Minerva

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Obama’s exit strategy?

November 18, 2008

Today, Jesse Singal has an excellent post challenging the role of conventional wisdom in making national security policy. All-too-often, he suggests, the terms of political debate and the potential policy options are locked in by a national security elite that infrequently finds its ideas contested, however dubious they might be.

For example, what are we to make of the forthcoming increased attention devoted to Afghanistan and Pakistan — even though many security analysts don’t see much of a threat from the Taliban and al Qaeda forces located there? Singal references a provocative article by Juan Cole in today’s Salon, which strongly suggests that Barack Obama’s new administration will be taking numerous risks by refocusing the global war on terror on Osama bin Laden and the remants of al Qaeda.

Personally, I am hopeful that Obama’s team sees a GWOT exit strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

First, don’t forget the big upside of refocusing the GWOT. By emphasizing the relative importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama can more readily extricate the US from Iraq with NIE-backed cover. Hawks fear an al Qaeda “safe haven” in Iraq’s future should the US withdraw, but the 2007 NIE already said al Qaeda has a safe haven in Pakistan. It makes sense to devote resources to the “real” threat, not some imagined future worst-case scenario.

Second, Afghanistan and Pakistan provide potential pathways by which the US could declare final victory in the GWOT and end it. The easiest means would be by capturing or killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, or by proving that he’s already dead.

A more subtle means would be via an effective “surge” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Frankly, this may well require some equivalent of the Anbar Awakening within the key target areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US needs to convince locals that “foreign fighters” are the invaders that must be resisted. The US could provide cash and maybe guns (like it did versus the Soviets) and minimize its own footprint. The US must not be seen as the foreign invaders (as it is now).

With the Musharraf regime gone, the US can also win allies within Pakistan by treating the new government with a lot more respect. For example, the ongoing missile strikes in the border area are really unpopular with Pakistan’s population, so it would help to end these — and achieve the military objectives through other means. Expediency will likely have to give way to methods based on a less intrusive model (grounded in the rule of law, not just military might).

I think it’s also possible that some sort of negotiated grand compromise could be achieved. The US would agree to exit contested areas of Afghanistan; the Taliban and its local allies would agree to stop committing acts of violence; Pakistan would agree to enforce the law within the confines of the law; and everyone would agree that al Qaeda is illegitimate.

None of these policies are risk-free. Pakistan, I have recently been reminded, faces massive corruption problems. How can the US count on any deal with such a state?

Still, I’d argue that’s a better place to be than engaged in an apparently unending and dangerous “global war on terror” that promotes global lawlessness and creates new terrorists.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.