Rip It Up And Start Again

Alas, I wasn’t on Air Force One this morning or I could have reported this at 11:00 a.m., but the transcript of the press gaggle has just come to me. And in it White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs announced something interesting: President Obama has tapped Bruce Riedel, a retired CIA official now at the Brookings Institution, to chair his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review. Co-chairing it will be Amb. Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to the region, and Michele Flournoy, the new undersecretary of defense for policy.

The strategy review, which has 60 days to do its work before Riedel returns to Brookings, is meant to go beyond military questions. Here’s how Gibbs put it:

MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously, there’s a review that overlaps also with what General Petraeus is doing. I think everyone has mentioned that in order for us to change the direction that we see in Afghanistan, we can’t simply focus on just the military aspects, that we have to focus on the diplomatic, the civil society, the reconstruction.

So I think with what Bruce is doing, and what other military planners are doing, is looking at the Afghanistan and Pakistan policies in a — not just in how many troops, but in a broad sense of what is possible and what needs to happen in order to change the direction.

So there it is: the question of what’s achievable; what the right goal is for U.S. policy; what’s in the U.S. interest; and how to achieve it at acceptable cost.

Along those lines, Christian Brose has a smart post at Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog arguing against a restriction of the goals in Afghanistan along the lines of President Obama’s articulation last night of the conditions for success. It’s causing me to kind of revise and extend some earlier comments: if the idea is indeed that the Afghan people are the center of gravity, they won’t bandwagon away from the Taliban-led insurgency without having their material and aspirational needs met, so some degree of — for lack of a better term — Central-Asian-Valhalla-ness is probably appropriate, even if you take the position that the core interest of the U.S. in Afghanistan-Pakistan is to eliminate al-Qaeda’s safe havens. The question is how much Valhalla-ness. Christian, I think, doesn’t offer a compelling argument for the necessity of democratization, providing instead a contention that such a thing is desirable. It certainly is, but the question is what’s achievable and what’s related to the national interest.

But in any event, Riedel is as level-headed a figure as could lead this review. If you read this recent interview with him on Af-Pak, you’ll see a pretty middle-of-the-road presentation. He favors more troops; he’s not hot on Hamid Karzai but frets over the lack of a clear alternative; he’s skeptical that anything could come of outreach to the Taliban; he wants to expand and deepen the U.S.-Pakistani relationship in order to build trust for the long haul; missile strikes in Afghanistan are dangerous and possibly counterproductive, so you need to primarily take on the safe havens using Pakistani troops. Whether these predilections presuppose the outcome of the review remains to be seen.

Crossposted to The Streak.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman