WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is focused on meeting its July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but it has no political strategy to help stabilize the country, current and former U.S. officials and other experts are warning.
The failure to articulate what a post-American Afghanistan should look like and devise a political path for achieving it is a major obstacle to success for the U.S. military-led counter-insurgency campaign that's underway, these officials and experts said.
The result is "strategic confusion," said Ronald E. Neumann, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005-07.
While the military's counter-insurgency strategy is well understood, "there is plenty more uncertainty over the political strategy which needs to complement ISAF's (International Security Assistance Force) work," wrote Simon Shercliff, a British diplomat, on his Internet blog after a two-day conference last week of U.S. officials and outside experts at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. "Everyone agrees that we need to develop one, but there is little consensus on what it should look like."
Congress, too, appears primarily concerned with the July 2011 timeframe, which coincides with the beginning of the 2012 presidential and congressional election campaigns.
In hours of hearings Wednesday, members of the House and Senate armed services committees questioned Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the Central Command, and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy on what additional steps could be taken to ensure that a withdrawal begins by next summer.
Members of the Senate panel sought a guarantee from Petraeus that U.S. troops will begin leaving then.
"So it's not whether we're going to draw down; it's the rate that is determined by conditions on the ground?" asked Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del.
"That's the policy. That's correct," replied Petraeus.
Senate and House of Representatives panels grilled Petraeus and Flournoy on whether enough progress can be made in reconciling the Afghan government and Taliban-led insurgents and building capable Afghan security forces to begin drawing down U.S. troops on the timetable that President Barack Obama gave last Dec. 1. There currently are 93,000 American service members in Afghanistan.
Legislators asked how the U.S. could overcome a shortage of 450 trainers for the Afghan Army and police; how to accelerate efforts to promote reconciliation; and how soon Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government could win the loyalty of key rivals.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Petraeus whether in June of 2012, he anticipated "us having more or less than 50,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan."
"I wouldn't hazard a guess," Petraeus responded, and neither he nor Flournoy offered a detailed vision for Afghanistan after July 2011, other than to promise a stable state with a stronger army and police force that has a long-term relationship with United States. No lawmaker pressed them for more.
"We are sounding an uncertain trumpet," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who's criticized the July 2011 timeframe.
The focus on a withdrawal is creating mounting concerns inside and outside the administration that the president's July 2011 timetable is obstructing the development of a long-term political strategy for resolving such key issues as the Taliban's rejection of Afghanistan's constitution and democratic parliamentary system of government.
"There was a general consensus (at last week's Central Command conference) that we don't have much of a political strategy," said a former senior U.S. official who also attended the session, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "As a result, the other things going on in that country are disconnected tactics to try to get to an unstated goal."
Such a political strategy should chart "a pathway to the future shape of a peaceful Afghanistan and its relationships with its neighbors and the wider world," British diplomat Shercliff wrote. "At the end of that pathway is a steady-state situation: an Afghanistan . . . robust enough to sustain its own economic and political stability, and repel the likes of al Qaida from setting up shop there."
"We have a great many people working hard to produce progress," said Neumann, the former U.S. ambassador. "But there is no common definition of what that progress is. No one knows if we're getting there and we don't know if we can't get there, and that produces strategic confusion."
Another reason that conference participants gave for the lack of a political strategy is that the July 2011 timeframe has convinced Afghan leaders and neighboring Pakistan, which provides sanctuary to the Taliban and allied groups, that the U.S.-led ISAF is pulling out.
As a result, they said, the Afghan factions and Pakistan have little incentive to embrace a long-term political plan that they don't believe the United States will be around to enforce.
"By talking in such a way that people believe you are only temporary visitors, you persuade everybody that it is not worth working with you except to carry your brief cases full of money," said Michael Semple, an expert with Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Police who served as a deputy to the European Union representative to Afghanistan.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Senate committee chairman, closed his hearing by asserting that, "We have a long-term commitment to Afghanistan." He didn't elaborate.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Read McClatchy's Afghanistan coverage.
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.