Even by American standards, the scope and speed with which Barack Obama has forsworn the legacy of his predecessor in the White House takes some beating. From the Iraq war through stem-cell research to climate change, the new President has turned eight years of US policy a full 180 degrees. Yesterday he executed another, no less complete, U-turn, announcing the results of his 90-day review on Afghanistan.
For a president whose victory rested on a set of promises that made him the very opposite of George Bush, this should not come as a surprise. That it still does reflects the public cynicism that so often attends politics today. Yet the directness and intellectual cogency with which Mr Obama set out his "comprehensive new strategy" for Afghanistan were refreshing. This was the sort of exposition rarely heard from national leaders.
In truth there was little in the conclusions that had not been rehearsed piecemeal in recent weeks by different US security officials. Fears in some quarters that the US planned an Iraq-style military "surge", to be preceded by demands for many more combat troops from supposedly lily-livered European allies, were always misplaced. As had become ever clearer as the review progressed, this was an exercise in consultation rather than command, and it relied at least as much on the contributions that might realistically be forthcoming from the allies as on any wish list from the top brass.
In contrast to George Bush, for whom armed force – after 9/11– seemed the foreign policy instrument of choice, it is strategy that seems to flow in Barack Obama's blood. Even so, it was startling to hear the man who is now Commander in Chief of the world's mightiest military power admitting that the situation in Afghanistan was becoming "increasingly perilous". And while he avoided any suggestion that this "raging" war could be lost, he did not once mention the word "victory" either. Nor did he refer to the "war on terror", democratic governance or any other concept with the slightest whiff of any ideology beyond pragmatism.
The new US policy towards Afghanistan is about setting goals that can be realised. It is about marshalling as many diverse and useful forces as can be garnered from whomever can be persuaded to supply them. It is about using armed force only against armed force, and only where this is deemed essential: in the south, and against what is now being called the "core" Taliban. The aim is to court those members of the Taliban, still – they hope – the majority, who have joined up out of frustration with the lack of progress under President Karzai, and to destroy those motivated by hatred of the West.
None of this will be easy. But it will be simpler than trying to subdue the whole of Afghanistan. And while more troops will be needed, the additional numbers being spoken of so far are relatively modest: 4,000 from the US, in addition to the 17,000 already on their way, and – not specifically mentioned by Mr Obama yesterday – the prospect of another 2,000 British troops for the south. This is a substantial – 25 per cent – increase, but not large at all compared with the numbers deployed until recently in Iraq.
This is possible because the new policy shifts the focus on to civilian projects and training. The idea, as latterly in Iraq, is for the Americans and others to train an Afghan force – military and police – sufficient to allow the foreign troops to withdraw. Mr Obama is thus asking not for more foreign combat troops, but for almost everything else, and a lot of it: trainers, professionals of all kinds, and equipment. There are to be development grants for Pakistan and the lawless borderlands, US inspectorates for accountability, and consultative bodies incorporating allies and neighbours, including Russia and Iran. While less overtly demanding, this collaborative approach makes it much harder for sceptical European allies to say no. Mr Obama has, to a great extent, co-opted their agenda.
There is something here of throwing everything at the problem in the hope that at least some of it might work. But the plan had two signal omissions. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is down, but not quite out. Mr Obama did not mention him once, and the regions are to be boosted. But the August elections are to go ahead – perhaps in the hope of an orderly, rather than enforced, change of power. Even more striking was the omission of any withdrawal date; did Mr Obama judge that the mooted five-year cut-off could prove a hostage to fortune?
Any new national leader has an enviable, if short-lived, chance to effect change. The all-encompassing financial crisis has knocked away some of the certainties with which Mr Obama came to power. The Afghanistan review is a reminder that he has not lost either his ambition or his mastery of the art of the possible. His plan deserves to be given a fair wind.Reuse content