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David A. Andelman: State of the Nation, But What About the World?

It was quite clear by the time President Obama got to the end of his State of the Union speech last night that it was very much—the state of America, not the state of the world.  Barely 10 minutes—roughly 900 of 7,500 words—were devoted in his hour-long address to global issues, a passing nod, an odd rhetorical flourish, a vague threat to America’s enemies—North Korea and Iran, al-Qaeda and the Taliban (not even by name, in the latter’s case). Controlling global warming? Good. Withdrawal from Iraq? Leaving behind a democratic government? Well, we shall see in the wake of the coming elections. Among the few accomplishments he cited? Thirty thousand more troops to Afghanistan and a big multilateral conference opening in London today to prop up the government of President Hamid Karzai. But within hours, this latter president undercut Obama’s whole message, suggesting it would be five to ten years before his nation could stand on its own against its many enemies, foreign and domestic. No route home soon for those 30,000 additional men and women apparently.  So what was on the agenda of the American president, and what was not?   Certainly not the Middle East. Despite his stem-winding speech in Cairo nearly a year ago, and the appointment of a master envoy, George Mitchell, Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart as ever. “If we had anticipated some of [the] political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high,” Obama admitted to Time’s Joe Klein last week.   A quick laughline over global warming. (“I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change....”) But no mention of the buzz-saw he walked into in Copenhagen which all but collapsed, leaving environmentalists puzzled at best, bitter at least.   Global trade? A pledge to double U.S. exports in the next five years—and move toward some Doha accord. Hardly a message many of America’s trading partners would like to hear. And especially those who were somehow left out of the message entirely:   “And that's why we'll continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia."  What happened to China? India? Brazil? Clearly straw men, purely passing cautionary tales: "China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting.”   Look out America, the world is out there breathing down our backs, waiting to steal our first-place position:   “These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America. (Applause.)”   Nuclear disarmament? “The United States and Russia are completing negotiations on the farthest-reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades.” When? No deadline. When they’re finished.
  And Iran?  “As Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise. (Applause.)” Which consequences, when and who will accompany us? Empty rhetoric does not go a very long way in Tehran or Qom.

Max Currier: Enhancing the Civilian Presence in Afghanistan

As President Obama formally announces his strategy for Afghanistan at West Point this evening, far too much attention focuses on the number of additional soldiers. One overlooked aspect to the war in Afghanistan is the role and number of civilians, who work in synergy with soldiers in building the civil society envisioned by the Obama administration as a key component of a successful counterinsurgency.

With enough soldiers, the military can clear and hold areas. But the "build" phase of this three-step counterinsurgency mission is more problematic. Unless the United States can help promote a developing, sustainable, and licit economy; train and develop support for an effective government; and literally help build the attendant civilian infrastructure such as roads and schools, then the United States will not be able to leave behind anything much better than what they found in October 2001.

Consider a typical Afghan: say, Ashraf the farmer. Ashraf cares primarily about harvesting a crop that he can sell for enough money to feed and shelter his family. He has no particular loyalty to his own government, the Taliban, or the United States. The “hardcore” Taliban number only about 10,000 in a country of 28 million; the remaining 20,000-30,000 are so-called “afternoon volunteers,” who are motivated by practical grievances rather than ideology, and whose allegiances can be temporarily won by whoever provides better opportunities.

Say, as often happens, two Talibs leave a note one night at Ashraf’s farm threatening to destroy his crops if he does not begin planting poppy—or, perhaps, begin planting roadside bombs against American convoys. The Talibs promise that if Ashraf complies, they will provide him with credit, poppy seeds, protect his fields, and then transport the crop to market once harvested. Ashraf, like most Afghans, hates the Taliban (whose popularity generally hovers south of 10 percent), but he knows his fields are suffering, that he has no credit to buy seeds for next season, and that he can’t transport his excess harvest to distant markets because there are no roads. The Taliban, for all their offenses, offer Ashraf what he needs. So, in many of the most important ways, the success or failure of the U.S. mission depends on Ashraf’s decision or not to submit to the Taliban’s demands.

This is precisely where additional civilians can be most successful—in helping persuade Ashraf that he need not collude with the Taliban. Today, most civilians in Afghanistan outside embassies in Kabul are assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which are joint civil-military units that, in 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, coordinate and implement development strategies for the "build" phase of counterinsurgency. A U.S. PRT includes roughly 80 soldiers, of which most are Civil Affairs specialists and support staff, not combat troops. Yet of the 80, only three civilians are assigned to a typical U.S. PRT—one representative each from the Departments of State and Agriculture, and one from USAID—and many posts actually remain unfilled. As of January, the total American civilian presence at PRTs amounted to only 35 specialists. Contrast this with some 65,000 American combat soldiers and another 30,000 on the way.



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