Afghanistan Review Shows Fragile Gains, Fragile Governments

President Barack Obama speaks about the U.S. strategy for military and civilian operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan following a two-month review process of the nine-year war

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. This morning on The Brian Lehrer Show, NPR national security correspondent Rachel Martin reviewed the Obama administration's assessment of the war in Afghanistan.

At Thursday's press conference, President Obama used words like "fragile" and "reversible" to describe the military gains we've made in Afghanistan over the past year. Not the most encouraging evaluation of our strategy, especially at a time when the public is disproportionately discouraged: a recent poll shows that 60 percent of Americans think the Afghanistan war isn't worth fighting.

There are a number of complicating factors delaying our progress in the conflict, and there's a growing concern that despite the Obama administration's assurance, we will not be able to begin withdrawing troops by the July 2011 deadline they set for themselves. Rachel Martin said that of the loose ends left to tie, getting the Afghani government to take charge is the most crucial (and least talked about) benchmark.

The biggest issue that really wasn't addressed was the governance question. This is something officials have highlighted as a key component to success in Afghanistan, getting the Afghan government to the point where they can assume control of the security question so US and NATO forces can stand down. In order for this to happen, there has to be some kind of semblance of effective government to manage all of this, and that was not addressed in the review.

Silence doesn't bode well here. But it's not just the Afghan government that requires coalition direction. Pakistan's involvement is key to ending the war too, as the country's porous border with Afghanistan has provided safe haven for the retreating Taliban to regroup.

This is the big sticking point. No one can win this war so long as insurgents are allowed to cross over into Pakistan, regroup, and then go back over and wage attacks. Success in Afghanistan is contingent on getting rid of those safe havens.

As is the case in Afghanistan, it's necessary to get Pakistan's government—not the United States'—to take the reins. According to Martin, though, it's been a pretty tough sell so far.

They need the Pakistani government to take control of getting rid of those safe havens. But the Pakistanis have not seen this as in their own national interests. To them, they have a much longer horizon, they are preparing for a time when the US leaves and they need to keep their fingers in all kinds of pots. They haven’t been all that willing to crack down on the safe haven issue.

That puts our military in an extremely difficult position. We're being told that the Pakistani border needs to be secured and the Taliban rooted out, but that we shouldn't be the ones to do it. At the same time, Pakistan is dragging its feet on the issue, abdicating responsibility for dealing with the Taliban on the grounds that the government's situation is delicate enough already. Even without action on their part, Martin said it's clear that the US can't just take matters into its own military's hands.

Military officials have been very careful not to suggest that US boots would go on the ground across the border in Pakistan. Any suggestion that that would happen would not be welcome by the Pakistani government.

Further military involvement wouldn't be too welcome by Americans either, including some in the White House. Martin said that even though some of the war's most vocal opponents, such as Rahm Emanuel, have exited the Obama administration, there's still a contingent that's against a protracted counterinsurgency strategy. Only, they haven't had to come out and say it just yet. That's likely to change between now and the next yearly assessment of the war.

There are still those within the administration who publicly aren’t talking about it but privately suggest that they have reservations about it, but those are going to be brought to the fore probably close to the summer. They’ve been given a pass for now, the debate’s going to get really heated in the next few months, though.