With Obama's New Afghanistan Strategy, an Effort to Find More Realistic Goals

The president emphasizes pragmatism as he lays out benchmarks for progress.

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Behind President Obama's unveiling Friday of a new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is an attempt to keep the reformulated approach tied to clear and attainable measures of progress. The emphasis on pragmatism appears to pivot to some degree away from the earlier Bush administration efforts, which set a broad and very challenging ambition to foster an enduring Afghan democracy.

The new policy, according to a senior State Department official, places elevated priority on standing up the Afghan government's fledgling civilian capabilities to deliver public services and establish its authority throughout the country. The Obama team is also intent on getting deeper international support, in the form of either additional troops or money. That hope has apparently been boosted by the State Department's extensive consultations with European diplomats in preparing the new policy, judging by praise for the process offered this week by one such diplomat.

In Obama's new policy, Iran is seen as an important regional player in Afghanistan's future, a practical reality that the administration has decided needs to be recognized explicitly. Still, multilateral deliberations over Afghan security are not being viewed as a forum in which any broader strategic dialogue with Tehran could emerge. U.S. policy toward Iran remains under review.

The Obama policy, notes the official, is tantamount to an endorsement of a congressional funding plan, known as the Kerry-Lugar legislation, that links long-term U.S. security assistance to Islamabad to that government's effort at curbing Taliban activity along the frontier areas of western Pakistan that border Afghanistan. As Obama said today in announcing the new strategy, "After years of mixed results, we will not, and cannot, provide a blank check" to Islamabad. The administration believes that maintaining the new relationship envisioned between Islamabad and Washington depends on a convergence of views on how to counter the Taliban-driven security challenges in Pakistan, according to officials.

Through stepped-up aid and other measures, the administration hopes to build a long-term partnership with Pakistan. But that outcome is more likely if the political disputes roiling Pakistan's democratic parties can be overcome.

U.S. officials have taken heart from seeing that the recent Pakistani political crisis over restoring the country's Supreme Court chief justice was resolved through accommodation, a course they recommended.

Pakistan, whose officials were extensively consulted for the policy review by special representative to the region Richard Holbrooke and others, is expected to give the American initiative broad support.