Barack Obama’s plan is seriously flawed. We need more

The Taleban’s favourite phrase in recent months has been: “The elephant is down, now all we have to do is slay it.”

The best thing about this week’s Obama speech was that they now know the elephant is not down; it is engaging the fight with renewed strength, determination and vigour. The Taleban are now under real pressure in northern Pakistan and, with the right resources, the right leadership and the right military strategy on the ground, we now have a chance to begin to turn the military tide in Afghanistan.

So is this enough for success (however limited your definition)? The answer is no.

The Obama speech gave us was a military plan — but not yet a political one. It was, in short, necessary, but not sufficient.

When General Stanley McChrystal sent his proposal to the President, it included a carefully integrated plan for both the military (broadly, an extra 30,000 troops and a focus on protecting the people, not chasing the enemy) and the political aspect. The speech contained the first but was almost silent on the second.

Perhaps this is still to come. But if it is not, then what we have heard so far will not be enough.

What the President intended was for audiences in the US and Afghanistan to hear different things. His message to the domestic audience was supposed to be “troops home in 18 months” and to the Taleban, “30,000 extra troops”. My worry is that the wrong people got the wrong message. What the US heard was “30,000 more troops” while what the Taleban heard was “in 18 months, they’ll be gone”.

The Taleban commander Mullah Omar once famously said: “They may have the watches, but we have the time.” I fear we may have inadvertently given volume to that message. I understand the temptation of timelines and exit strategies for those who have to win domestic support. But they also tell our enemies how long they have to wait before we give up.

It is far better to deal with these things through milestones rather than timelines. For instance we could set milestones for the growth and professionalisation of the Afghan Army and police, set target times for them to be delivered and, as they are, hand over our functions to Afghan structures and pull out as we do so.

In Bosnia, we formulated this into a Mission Implementation Plan, a public document that served not just to hold us to key tasks, but also to provide accountability to our political masters. A mission implementation plan for Afghanistan, capable of being debated in national parliaments at home and providing a visible road map of progress for Afghans as well, is a better way to gain public support than artificial deadlines that, in the case of July 2011, look to me almost undeliverable.

It is not difficult to see why the President felt that he needed, for domestic purposes, to say that withdrawal would start in July 2011. But this does not make it right.

Other elements of the strategy were also either missing or too lightly glossed over.

First and foremost, there was nothing about the absolute necessity to ensure that, at last and after six damaging years of muddle, the tower of Babel that is the international community in Afghanistan will now work to a single plan, act on a single set of priorities and speak with a single voice. It is the absence of this, more than anything else that has caused our failures and cost us so many lives. The only person whose authority is powerful enough to bash international heads together and make this happen is the US President. Yet there was nothing of this in his speech.

Second, what political element there was in the President's speech seemed to rely still on the belief that President Karzai is reformable and will reform. Some might think this a triumph of hope over experience. Of course we cannot change Afghanistan’s newly elected President; of course we have no option but to support him. But that does not mean we need to pile all our eggs into this rather rickety basket.

One of the impediments to success in Afghanistan is that we have been trying to force a Western-style centralised constitution on to a country whose traditions have been tribal and local for 1,000 years. This is a golden opportunity to begin to shift the weight of our effort away from strengthening Kabul, to building up governance from the bottom. This would at once give us a political strategy that runs with, rather than against, the grain of Afghan society, while creating the best context for a serious programme of reconciliation with the tribally based Taleban.

Taleban reconciliation was mentioned in the President's speech — but only with a single, almost off-hand, remark. Yet this was a main plank of the McChrystal strategy. We need to be clear here. Taleban reconciliation is not an easy option to hard fighting. It may always be possible to split the oddly low-level Taleban commander away with a bag of gold or the promise of a job. But serious negotiation with a Taleban prepared to put aside the gun in favour of pursuing constitutional means will never come while they think — with justification — that they are winning on the battlefield.

But if in the next year or so we can begin to turn this around we will need a serious, thought-through, heavyweight programme to bring those Taleban who will lay aside the gun for the ballot box into the fold. And that needs to be much more clearly laid out now if it is to have significant impact and be properly prepared for — especially among non-Pashtun Afghans who regard such an approach with deep suspicion.

I had also hoped to see, in the President’s speech a clear statement of a wider regional strategy that would include not just Pakistan but also Iran, India, and maybe even Russia and China. Without this, success will be much more difficult.

One other thing struck me about this week’s speech. The old Obama so famously comfortable in his own skin, seemed distinctly uncomfortable in that of a war leader. Gordon Brown, too, looks especially miserable talking of conflict. I do not think either feels comfortable with this — and who would? We all understand that our Prime Minister will never be Henry V before Agincourt. But the US President has formidable gifts of oratory and he will need to deploy them more confidently, if he is to pull this one off. As my colleague Nick Clegg has said, you cannot win a war on half horsepower.

Paddy Ashdown. Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon was the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia.