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What the Next President Will Face

Advice from policymakers and analysts interviewed by FRONTLINE for this report.

  • People
  • Robert D. Kaplan
  • Steve Coll
  • David Kilcullen
  • Henry Crumpton
  • Vali Nasr
  • Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.)
  • Michele Flournoy
  • Richard Armitage
  • Michael Scheuer
  • Adm. William Fallon (Ret.)
  • Related Links
  • Tea With the Taliban?
    "The question policy-makers are pondering, in fact, isn't whether to negotiate with the Taliban but when," writes David Ignatius. (The Washington Post, Oct. 26, 2008)
  • Next President Faces Growing Crisis In Afghanistan
    This conclusion of NPR's five-part series on Afghanistan and Pakistan puts into context the challenges McCain or Obama will face in this region. (Oct. 17, 2008)
  • The Good War?
    TX Hammes advises the future U.S. president: "Before we rush more troops into Afghanistan, we must answer basic questions about our strategy for the region and how our efforts in Afghanistan support that strategy." (Small Wars Journal, Sept. 15, 2008)
  • From Great Game to Grand Bargain
    Barnett R. Rubin and Ahmed Rashid argue: "The crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan is beyond the point where more troops will help. U.S. strategy must be to seek compromise with insurgents while addressing regional rivalries and insecurities." (Foreign Affairs, November/December 2008)
  • Council on Foreign Relations -- Campaign 2008
    The Council on Foreign Relations tracks the U.S. presidential candidates' foreign policy positions on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Robert D. Kaplan The Atlantic; author, Soldiers of God

    A new administration comes into office in early 2009, facing a roster of challenges across the Middle East. What will it inherit?

    … It inherits an Iraq that's getting better and better but is extremely tenuous and one mistake could undo it completely.

    It inherits an Afghanistan that needs not so much more troops -- though more troops could help -- but a situation where we don't have the politics right at all. That goes from not realizing that India and Pakistan are involved in Afghanistan for very different reasons than we are. And unless we get this Afghanistan-India-Pakistan triangle right, we're not going to make progress there. …

    In Afghanistan we can use more troops, but it depends how we use them. Afghanistan will not get better if all we do is put more troops on the border with Pakistan and lob shells in every time we get shot at. All that's going to lead to is more civilians being killed and making us more enemies and leading to a greater rise of the Pakistani Taliban.

    We have to do different things with the troops we put in. We have to break them up into small units, put them in villages, embed them with the Afghan National Army -- the kind of things that we did in Iraq during the surge. ...

    You're talking about counterinsurgency?

    I'm talking about counterinsurgency, and counterinsurgency tends to work best at the edges where, on the one hand, you dominate the battle space. You monopolize the use of force, of violence. … But on the other hand, … counterinsurgency gives the civilian population a stake in the outcome. It builds schools. It improves roads. It digs water wells. It makes it clear to the civilian population that if you support us … there are benefits that will outlast our visit here. …

    In your assessment, what is the biggest threat that the new administration will have to contend with?

    The biggest threat that the new administration will have to contend with is an attack on the homeland. That could be spurred, not necessarily, by Al Qaeda operating from the Pakistan borderlands or Afghanistan, but home-grown Al Qaeda, or some copycat Al Qaeda, or something of that magnitude. …

    What about a failed state in Pakistan?

    A failed state in Pakistan would be close to the ultimate foreign policy nightmare, because there would be no military intervention scenarios. It would be a matter of managing and nurse-maiding the problem. It could lead to Indian troop movements in the region. It could seriously impinge upon the Indian economy, which would be bad for the world economy. It could lead to more violence in Afghanistan, to more threats against the Karzai government. And remember, we're talking about 165 million people without a state.

    Now, I don't think it'll come to that. I really don't. I've been to Pakistan nine times in recent years, for at least a month on each trip. And each time, Pakistan was in some state of chaos. But chaos is relative here and the state moves along.

    Steve Coll The New Yorker; author, Ghost Wars

    In the long run, American policy in Pakistan ought to be clear. We are invested in the success of a stable, democratic, constitutional Pakistan. There is every reason to be hopeful about Pakistan's success, looking out 10 or 20 years.

    India is rising. In 50 years, India may be one of the most prosperous and significant countries on the planet. And Pakistan is right next door. It has every reason to succeed as India succeeds if it is able to organize its political and constitutional affairs to benefit from this historical change that's going on in South Asia.

    The United States, in its own interests, … ought to be investing in a stable, democratic, constitutional, strong, modernizing Pakistan at the level of civil society, at the level of democratic politics, at the level of media, at the level of economics and meeting the basic needs of the many tens of millions of Pakistanis who live in poverty. That, along with security and stability in Afghanistan, has to be a part of American strategy in Pakistan. …

    Having said all of that, we have to be clear-eyed that there is a short-term threat to American lives and interests in the form of the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating on Pakistani soil. … Addressing that threat is not going to be easy at the same time that you're building this long-term strategy to support Pakistani democracy.

    David Kilcullen Counterinsurgency expert; former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus

    David Kilcullen

    I think [the new administration] would be well advised to look at the region comprehensively -- Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and … say, what's the relative priority of these different component parts of the problem, how do we allocate resources and what's our strategy for each of those elements?

    What would that overarching strategy look like?

    In Iraq, we want to make it as stable as possible, consistent with getting out of there as early as we possibly can. So there's two competing imperatives. … That's going to translate into a process of, let's say, three to five years from the end of 2008. …

    That means that in Afghanistan, we have to fight a holding action for about the same amount of time, three to five years, where we're not going to have a very substantial increase in the resources that we have now.

    And what we're trying to do is to stand up an Afghan government that can handle its internal threat, which makes it fundamentally a reconstruction, development, civil capacity building issue, and a counternarcotics issue, and an anti-corruption issue. And then, the counterinsurgency bit fits in with that.

    So we're essentially fighting a holding action in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to free up the necessary resources from Iraq and address the problem in Afghanistan. That doesn't mean necessarily a lot of troops. ... But it means certain critical resources and money, particularly.

    Henry Crumpton State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, 2005-'07; CIA, 1981-2005

    Let's say you're briefing the next president of the United States. What do you tell him about Pakistani military capabilities?

    Of greatest importance, they have nuclear weapons. That's a big variable. But the army is primarily trained and equipped and focused to fight the Indian army in the Punjab Plain.

    And in Kashmir.

    And in Kashmir. But what we're seeing now in the tribal areas is a classic insurgency. And the way you counter that is working with indigenous forces. You use hard power in the beginning, the first 10, 20 percent, and then the next 80, 90 percent is what you might refer to as soft power, and that would be health facilities; that would be roads; that would be economic opportunities, education -- all the things that come with an effective counterinsurgency. …

    The next president is inheriting a very challenging situation here. What should his priority be?

    I think his priority should be Al Qaeda, given their intentions, given their demonstrated capabilities to attack us in the homeland. And the next president needs to reach out to the Pakistani government and the Afghanistan government and work with them to find a solution.

    But there has to be a pretty tight timeline. We cannot wait much longer. I am concerned if there is an Al Qaeda attack on the homeland, our response will not be proportionate. I think the American people will demand a very harsh response. And, in the long term, that might be counterproductive for us.

    Our response must be precise. It must be nuanced and certainly lethal if we're talking about Al Qaeda. Time is not necessarily in our favor. So while we need to work with our partners, both at a national level and a local level, we must also reserve the unilateral option. I think that's critical.

    Vali Nasr Council on Foreign Relations; professor, Tufts University

    Vali Nasr

    I think this is much worse than any other president's inheritance. You have a war in Iraq. You have a war in Afghanistan that is getting out of hand. You have a virtual Taliban conquest of Afghanistan -- in fact, a wholesale rolling back of everything we achieved in 2001. …

    You have a conflict with Iran, which is, at best, stuck and, at worse, going in the direction of a conflict. And then you also still have a great deal of suspicion towards the United States and its intentions in the Arab world. You have cynicism and disgruntlement on the Arab-Israeli issue. And you have many conflicts like the one between Turkey and the Kurdish region of northern Iraq; between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state. And all of these are, in very complicated ways, tied together. The United States is involved in all of them. And it's not winning in any of them. …

    So the president inherits two very hot wars.

    He inherits two hot wars and he inherits an absence or a vacuum of foreign policy and strategy in Washington as to what to do. I think that's very critical. … The next president, literally, will have to create policy in every one of these circumstances.

    And the status of the military? What shape is the military in?

    The U.S. military is doing fairly well in Iraq. It's got ahead of the conflict, at least. … The military has a game plan in Afghanistan, as well.

    ... These are problems that are not just military. These are broader, strategic foreign policy problems. And, in fact, one of the failures of the Bush administration is that it has never elevated the discussion above the military level. …

    I think part of the challenge of the next president is not just to not get bogged down in the bean-counting with brigades and troops, etc., but rather, try to put his hands around what do we do with this region as a whole. How do we extricate ourselves from [an] interconnected set of conflicts and get ahead of the problems in this region? Develop a forest view of what's going on in this region.

    A lot of people that we've spoken to have talked about how exhausted the military is and, therefore, the next president's hands are tied. Can you talk about that?

    Without a doubt every one of these conflicts we're talking about, with the exception of the Arab-Israeli conflict, has a military component to it. …

    But there's a larger problem here. The ability of the United States to persuade adversaries or friends to follow certain policies or change behaviors is being diminished. …

    Our enemies are not intimidated and our friends are no longer confident in our abilities. So Iran very clearly calculates that the United States does not have the stamina to pursue a full-fledged military campaign against Iran.

    Pakistan now believes that the United States really does not have the capability to either decide the fate of Afghanistan or even intimidate the Pakistani military into continuing to support the U.S. position.

    So we're seeing Iran and Pakistan, basically, much more overtly following their own agendas. And then countries like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, who previously would have trusted the United States to keep the lid on things, no longer trusts that. …

    So, in short, the next president inherits no policies that he can continue, no policies that are working right now and a military where his hands are tied, where the force is spent.

    Absolutely. In other words, the next president arrives at the White House in a situation where U.S. goals in the region are still maximalist. But U.S. means are now not there to support them. So we have maximum goals with minimal means.

    Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.) Counterinsurgency expert; former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus

    Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.)

    The next president who comes into office has two wars.

    Three wars, I would say. Iraq, Afghanistan and this broad, so-called long war against radical Islamic extremism, with smaller campaigns in places like the Philippines and the Horn of Africa.

    … What are your options? Given the state of the U.S. military, what can you do?

    We are in a position where we can start thinking hard about adopting a different strategy in Iraq. We can increasingly turn responsibility over to the Iraqi security forces. American forces can pull back into a supporting role, no longer practicing counterinsurgency themselves, but assisting the Iraqi security forces in conducting counterinsurgency. … That will free up resources to send to Afghanistan.

    The key in Afghanistan over the short term, we're going to have to surge some American combat forces to clear the insurgents in that country out of some of the areas they've been able to achieve control of. We also have to use more American forces to put a better barrier along the border with Pakistan.

    But the long-term answer in Afghanistan, ... the long-term answer in Iraq, has to be the host nation security forces themselves. So we've got to increase the size of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, and we have to devote more resources to mentoring those folks. …

    It's going to take several years for that to happen. But that's absolutely a move in the right direction, and we should accelerate that to the maximum extent possible. And we should support it with additional American advisers and other assets that we're going to be able to redeploy from Iraq.

    Michele Flournoy Center for a New American Security

    Michele Flournoy

    Afghanistan is a place where billions and billions of dollars have been pledged. Only a fraction of that aid has actually been delivered. Nor have we done a very good job in building up the Afghan government's capacity to actually administer that aid. So we have a lot of work to do in Afghanistan. It's been in either a holding or backsliding position because we diverted our attention to Iraq. It now needs to become a focus again for our new administration.

    How many more troops do we need on the ground in Afghanistan?

    I think, for starters, we need another two brigades. That's what the commander on the ground has requested to try to do real counterinsurgency, stabilize the situation. In addition, we need more military advisers and trainers to build up the Afghan National Army and police capabilities on the ground.

    So the new president has to realize that he's got very limited wiggle room in terms of building the U.S. ground forces?

    He's got to realize that he's got a real risk-allocation problem; that he's got to manage Iraq and maintain stability and forward movement there as we reduce the level of our commitment. He's got to find a way to increase the commitment in Afghanistan to turn that situation around. He's got to create some sort of renewed strategic reserve to be able to respond to contingencies elsewhere. And he's got to try to bring down the strain on the force.

    It is a horrendously difficult set of challenges that's being bequeathed to the next president, probably the most daunting national security inheritance in generations. …

    That said, I think what can help our credibility most is how we work to make progress in these areas. I think if the U.S. manages a drawdown in Iraq without doing further damage to either internal stability in Iraq or regional stability, that will help. If we make Afghanistan a success, that will help. If we start once again becoming the champion of the rule of law, that will help. There are all kinds of things that the next president has to do to rebuild our standing.

    How much time do you think the next president has to really accomplish anything? …

    I think the real challenge for this next president is to establish some very strategic objectives and try to keep managing them and to not succumb to the tyranny of the in-box. It's an exceedingly difficult thing to do, and it takes an extraordinary leader with real vision.

    Richard Armitage Deputy secretary of state, 2001-'05

    Richard Armitage

    You've got a few minutes with the next president of the United States. What do you think is most important to get across to him?

    I think I'd probably tell him, first of all, that we want to get back to the Reagan era's view of America as a shining city on a hill and not have our image be that of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. Beyond that, I'd tell them that things are going better in Iraq, but they're going worse in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, if a failure, will also bring down Pakistan. And this is what he needs to spend his immediate attention on. …

    Clearly we've got to rearrange the fabric of our relationship with the [new] civilian government of Pakistan. We've got to align our activities and their activities for the greatest common good. We've got to redouble and maybe triple efforts in Afghanistan. And I believe, once for all … we have to settle on a strategy for the FATA, [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] which we've not had to my mind. We've not settled on one. …

    So what do you tell the next president he's got to do in Afghanistan and Pakistan together?

    In Afghanistan, we've got to make this the main thrust of our military activities and not an economy-of-force theater. So, what'd I'd be suggesting is Iraq becomes an economy-of-force theater and our main military effort goes off in Afghanistan.

    Second, I would re-look at our investment strategy and try to work with Capitol Hill on the following: Right now, it takes about 18 months to two years from inception of an idea to funding to completion of a project. … It's just the nature of our foreign assistance budgeting process. We need to become more able to put money on a problem and have almost immediate results. That's going to take something to work with Congress.

    Equally, we're going to have to, in Afghanistan, continue to go after the drugs and maybe think in new ways. For instance, why not buy the poppy from the farmer and then use it? Turn it into morphine and then have this morphine distributed to poor, undeveloped countries who don't have these painkilling drugs? Something like that. We're going to need some new thinking.

    On Pakistan, as I've said, we're going to have to, I think, develop a strategy both for the FATA and for the nation as a whole, because it's a fractured nation at best. …

    If you want to get across why you believe Afghanistan has to be the main game, as you've said, how do you dramatize the seriousness of that situation?

    … It's not just a matter of the nuclear weapons that Pakistan has. Some people hyperventilate about that. I hyperventilate less about that than the fact that this could be a very large breeding ground for extremism if we're not successful in Pakistan. And I think Pakistan and Afghanistan are in the balance. So I would be arguing with the president that his presidency will be known for how he resolved this issue.

    Michael Scheuer CIA, 1982-2004; author, Imperial Hubris

    Michael Scheuer

    What is the president encountering with the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation? How would you describe it?

    The way I would describe it is, ... the game is over. The war is lost in Afghanistan. We cannot recover from the deterioration of the situation we have presided over for the last seven years. There's not enough troops in the American inventory of armed forces to rectify the situation, and there's no stomach for the type of fighting that would be involved to do it.

    So the next president will face a situation where, in the next year or two, he will have to make the decision that faced the Soviets in 1988: either to massively reinforce and to wage a war very aggressively, or to get out.

    So you're saying massive insertion of troops into Afghanistan. What does that look like? What would need to be done to win the war in Afghanistan?

    Oh, it'd be a tremendously bloody exercise, probably would require, at this point, another 150,000 troops. You have to do something about the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. You have to effectively close that border. You have to really forget about spreading democracy and women's rights and the rest of the stuff that we're doing at the moment, and really devote yourself to annihilating the enemy.

    What we did was destroy the Taliban or at least its hold on the country. In doing so, we also destroyed the first stability and the first reliable law-and-order regime that Afghanistan had in 25 years, and we didn't replace it. So now we have a country that's infested with everything from the Taliban and Al Qaeda, on the insurgency side, to bandits and warlords to narcotics traffickers.

    Sorting out that mess would be a very militarily-intensive effort and a very bloody one. And that's a decision that's coming down the road at the next president. Neither man really, Obama or McCain, have any idea really of what they're getting into. We hear a lot of talk about them promising to send two more brigades to Afghanistan, which, of course, would allot about three or four soldiers and Marines for every mile of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It really is a drop in the bucket. So it's a major disaster looming for the United States. And really, we're going to have to decide how we get out with as much decorum as we can.

    Are you suggesting that the military doesn't really have a solution for Afghanistan?

    Of course there's always a military solution. The American politicians don't have the stomach, clearly. We're in the situation we are in Iraq and Afghanistan because we haven't killed enough of the enemy. And Afghanistan is the problem, compounded by the fact that we tried to do it on the cheap. …

    There are some that suggest that the solution in Afghanistan cannot be solved militarily.

    That's really because we've convinced ourselves in the West that war has changed since Caesar and Alexander the Great, or since Korea or Vietnam. And unfortunately, we're fighting an enemy that doesn't have any kind of limits on what it intends to do in order to win.

    We send our soldiers and Marines overseas not as killers but as targets. And the rules of engagement are so tight that we worry to death if a few civilians get killed. And so we are now into the eighth autumn of this war. We're losing it.

    Adm. William Fallon (Ret.) Commander, U.S. Central Command, 2007-'08

    Adm. William Fallon (Ret.)

    Do we have the resources to really pursue wars on two fronts, in Iraq and Afghanistan, successfully?

    … The war in Iraq is going in a very positive direction, and most importantly, the heavy combat operations we saw last year have ceased. We're clearly in a mode of transitioning to Iraqi security forces and our forces coming down. And so we have a situation that's decidedly improved and moving strongly in the right direction.

    Afghanistan is still a challenge. We did not, in my opinion, devote quite enough attention to all aspects of this in the past, and that's changing. We can deal with this. … We just haven't had enough people on the ground in the past year to do as much as we could do, I think, if we had unlimited resources. …

    But there is one other thing that's significant here. To date, we, the U.S., have been basically paying for all of this in terms of Afghan security forces. In Iraq right now, for example, the Iraqi government is paying the vast majority of the expense of the Iraqi security force, and they're about to basically pick it up in total. But we are still footing the bill in Afghanistan.

    I think we've been trying to invest our resources wisely there in a measured pace. But this is something that could be looked at. And I think you're beginning to see, in recent days, some notice around the world that maybe some others might be able to make some contributions here.

    But we have to be careful, because one of the things I would caution, we don't really want to rush into is the idea that we start outsourcing pieces of this to different people in different places. You know, "We'll train this brigade, you train that brigade" kind of thing. That's how things started in Afghanistan … and you see that that didn't work out too well. So whatever we do has got to be coordinated, but there are a lot of resources that have yet to be applied in Afghanistan.

    posted october 28, 2008

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