Obama’s NATO juggling act

On the eve of a key NATO summit in Chicago, President Obama is facing several political and policy battles that could upend his strategy for a post-war Afghanistan.

World leaders attending the NATO summit, scheduled to begin on Sunday, will look to build on the post-war agreement that Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed on May 1.

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That deal states that American and coalition forces will be out of the country by 2014. But it also mandates that an undetermined number of U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan until 2024 to assist local Afghan forces.

Rampant corruption in Karzai’s government has cast doubt on whether Afghan forces will be ready to assume the security mission, while the continuing presence of Taliban safe havens along the Afghan-Pakistani border has called into question whether the terror group will ever be completely ousted from Afghanistan. 

The Obama administration is also increasingly under attack from lawmakers over the troop withdrawal plan.

How the White House handles the juggling act will help determine the outcome of a war that has come to define the Obama administration. 

Attacks from the left 

In the midst of campaign season, Obama has said he will make no decisions about the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan until the surge troops are withdrawn this fall, likely pushing off any troop announcements until after the election.

Postponing that decision could blunt potential criticism from presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, but it hasn’t warded off pressure from members of his own party.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday argued in favor of legislation calling for an acceleration of U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. 

Citing recent polls showing waning support for the war, anti-war Democrats held a press conference Wednesday touting a letter signed by more than 85 lawmakers demanding a quicker drawdown in Afghanistan. 

“We’re here to tell the president of the United States: We want to be the wind in your back in terms of you bringing this war to an end,” Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) said at the press conference. 

“I think deep in his soul, he understands it’s pointless for us to be there another year, another two or three years and beyond that,” McGovern said. 

Afghan corruption

Hawks on the right, meanwhile, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), are calling for keeping all 68,000 troops in Afghanistan through the 2013 fighting season. They warn that drawing down too quickly would open the door to a resurgence of the Taliban.

But the biggest threat to stability in Afghanistan might be the country’s fledgling government.

Corruption within Karzai’s administration remains the biggest threat to Afghanistan’s security, regardless of whether American troops leave in 2014 or earlier, according to McCain.

Government corruption, particularly at the local level, “is the single biggest reason [Afghans] sign up to fight for the Taliban,” said Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project specializing in Central and South Asian affairs.

The problem, according to Foust, is that the Karzai government lacks the resources and local knowledge to properly vet government officials at the local level. 

DOD and State Department officials were forced to shut down an Afghan-led anti-corruption working group last year, according to a State Department official speaking under the condition of anonymity, after members “learned new ways” to defraud the Afghan government, based on their reviews of corruption cases. 

What had been intended to curb rampant corruption inside Afghan government ministries instead ended up “teaching [officials] how to be corrupt,” according to the official.

There is little that can be done policy-wise by either the United States or its allies that can effectively curb the corruption, according to Foust. 

American and NATO leaders can try to institute a better vetting process for potential government officials or demand more accountability from the Karzai administration, he said, but in the end those efforts are “not going to go very far.” 

“Realistically [the United States is] not going to have the time or attention to do that,” Foust said, adding that there will be “zero appetite for funding Afghanistan [support] for the next decade,” once American troops pull out in 2014. 

The Pakistan question 

Pakistan’s agreement to attend the NATO summit has been seen as a thawing of relations between Washington and Islamabad. 

Recent news of a tentative deal to reopen U.S. supply routes into Afghanistan via Pakistan that had been closed to American forces since last November is also being touted as a positive sign. 

However, heading into Friday’s summit, U.S. lawmakers and administration officials continue to be wary of Pakistan and its role in Afghanistan. A DOD official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Pakistan’s shared border with Afghanistan is “still assumed as a risk” to American forces.

Members of the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based terror group affiliated with the Taliban, continue to stage attacks against American troops in Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Those cross-border raids are a main reason why eastern Afghanistan is being targeted as the main objective for U.S. and coalition forces during this summer’s fighting season.

McCain on Monday said Pakistan’s intelligence agency, known as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), plays a direct role in the Haqqani network’s operations. 

Despite administration claims that no direct links between the Haqqani network and the ISI have been established, those claims “cannot be [supported] by the facts,” McCain said. 

Islamabad’s decision to attend the NATO summit, along with the decision on the supply routes, is part of the delicate game of diplomacy being played between the United States and Pakistan, according to Foust.

The outcome of that game between Pakistan and the White House could very well determine the future of Afghanistan once American troops come home.