February 8, 2009 – The Obama administration today today outlined a new campaign strategy for the war in Afghanistan, scaling back the ambitions of George Bush in a shift which senior officials and diplomats described as a “new realism”.
Richard Holbrooke, Barack Obama’s new envoy for Afghanistan, General James Jones, the new White House national security adviser, and General David Petraeus, the new commander of the Afghan campaign, all stressed that the US president’s policy on the Taliban and al-Qaida would be governed by “attainable goals” matched by “adequate resources”.
In the first major foreign policy speech from the new administration, the vice-president, Joe Biden, told a security conference in Munich that the strategic review on Afghanistan under way in Washington would “make sure that our goals are clear and achievable”.
Notable by its absence in any of the speeches from the American team was any mention of building democracy in Afghanistan. Instead, the emphasis was on creating sustainable security to try to prevent the Taliban from extending their grip on the country.
“Obama’s objectives will be much more moderate,” said a senior European policy-maker involved in discussions with the Obama team. A senior Nato official said Washington’s emphasis on Afghanistan was shifting to “being much more realistic”, adding: “It doesn’t need to be a democracy, just secure.”
“The new policy will be not just winning hearts and minds, but winning hearts, minds, and stomachs,” said another senior diplomat working in Kabul. “It’s realistic. Realism is good.”
The Obama team and Nato leaders are due to finalise a “comprehensive” review of the Afghan strategy by April when the US president arrives in Europe for a Nato summit in France and Germany.
“Barack Obama is a pragmatist. He knows we must deal with the world as it is,” said Jones. He added that there had been a “failure to harmonise” the various strands of the campaign in Afghanistan. The new policy would place greater emphasis on “going beyond military capacity” to dealing with good governance, judicial reform, a focus on the police, and the “war on drugs”.
General John Craddock, the Nato commander, said alliance forces in Afghanistan would launch attacks on opium and heroin cartels “within a few days”, a decision that has triggered some dispute among some European Nato allies.
Petraeus made it plain that the Americans expected the Europeans to contribute more troops to the campaign in Afghanistan, although there were no troop pledges made over the weekend.
John Hutton, the British defence secretary, was the sole European voice todaycalling for more troops to be dispatched. “It is better to volunteer than to be asked,” he said, denouncing the European habit in Nato of “looking to the Americans to do all the heavy lifting”.
Hutton delivered an unusually robust attack on Nato’s bureaucracy, arguing that the operations to counter the Taliban represented the alliance’s future.
“This is not an aberration. This is the pattern of future conflicts. I do not believe we are properly preparing for it,” he said.
Nato should show a “wartime mentality” over the campaign in Afghanistan, but instead it possessed a “peacetime culture obsessed with process”, he added.
Hutton’s attack on Nato’s indecision was welcomed by Petraeus, who described the remarks as “a terrific message”. The US is expected to almost double its contingent in Afghanistan to about 60,000 troops.
Holbrooke signalled a sharp change of tack on Afghanistan, saying: “We’ve inherited a situation of grand rhetoric and inadequate resources, both military and civilian. We need to understand what our goal is in Afghanistan.”