First Annual Members’ Conference – Afghanistan-Pakistan: Is the Obama Plan Working?

Summary of the breakout conversation “Afghanistan-Pakistan: Is the Obama Plan Working?” at the 2009 Annual Members’ Conference.


Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, USN (Ret.), Former Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command
Mr. David Sedney, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia
Dr. Harlan Ullman, Founder, The Killowen Group; Senior Advisor, Atlantic Council
Moderated by Mr. Shuja Nawaz, Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council


This session was held under Atlantic Council Rules, defined by President and CEO Frederick Kempe as “Chatham House Rules with military enforcement.”  Below is a general summary of the topics discussed.

Specialists gathered to discuss and debate the effectiveness and extent of an Obama plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Obama Administration is oscillating between the need for a quick turn around against the complex security environment, with a time bound need to present a graceful exit strategy. Participants, however, differed over whether there was even an Obama plan at work. Should there be a definition of success or victory in Afghanistan? Is Afghan input being considered while crafting a strategy for the region? Can Pakistan stop hedging on the Afghan Taliban?  The characteristics of the plan were discussed at great length, and the sense that emerged was that a substantial troop escalation dynamic might not necessarily steer President Obama’s plan for the region toward a successful outcome.

One panelist noted that Afghanistan is conjured up of loosely affiliated tribal associations, with a weak central government. A hurried strategy to transition security responsibilities to the Afghan army would not be a sufficient prescription for success. In this sense, it takes eighteen years for a soldier to become a colonel! The point was made that any notion of a U.S exit would lead to a collapse of the central government, leaving armed and trained personnel to revert back to their tribes.  Some took a strong view that the situation in Afghanistan was desperate and extremely serious; the center of gravity had shifted to Pakistan, and more aid ought to be channeled to Pakistan to assist it in turning around the internal situation from a point of critical instability. For example, the handling of the Swat refugees’ situation is testament to Pakistan’s internal challenges, but also vocalizes its commitment to reverse the fragile situation in the country. A participant conveyed the idea of lend-lease for Pakistan — an arrangement that would give Pakistan access to the necessary tools needed to fight Counter Insurgency and Counter Terrorism.

Turning to future responsibilities, participants laid emphasis on three key benchmarks that should form the framework for a more effective strategy which included:  Security of the population; improved governance; and providing assistance to Afghans to advance their socio-economic sectors. Members of the panel also articulated the need for a comprehensive regional strategy that would “win the hearts and minds” of the regional stakeholders. While the group acknowledged short comings on the part of the Afghanistan government, the transparent exchange threw light on Pakistan’s concerns with a premature U.S departure from the region. The conversation reinforced the need for India to take on its responsibility to stabilize Pakistan, while also recognizing the parallel roles of both countries in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan’s frontier regions.

Summary by Habeeb Noor, Research Associate, South Asia Center