Cautious optimism in Kabul is greeting US President Barack Obama's new strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When Obama originally unveiled his Afghan policy blueprint on March 27, government officials and non-governmental actors alike greeted it with a sigh of relief, as it endorsed a strong American commitment to Afghanistan. However, an initial burst of enthusiasm for the new strategy has given way to a more nuanced approach, with Afghans and Afghanistan-based internationals cautioning that the real test will lie in the details, implementation, and prioritization of multiple goals.
Speaking on conditions of anonymity, a European diplomat said that the general opinion among his European colleagues was that "it was one of the better strategies" and a "good document." But the diplomat stressed that "many questions remain."
While the regional approach outlined in the Obama administration blueprint is generally welcomed, some officials and observers worry that Washington may be conflating the problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan to an undesirable degree. "The problem is linked, but not the same in the two countries," the diplomatic source said. The diplomat added that overemphasis on Pakistan could distract attention from the very real problems within Afghanistan.
Similarly, while the Obama's administration's ability to recognize that a number of different factors -- including unemployment and local grievances -- is driving the insurgency, the diplomat voiced concern that problems were being oversimplified.
Both the Afghan government and the UN's Mission in Afghanistan cheered the Obama plan for its focus on development. The UN's top official in the country, Kai Eide, termed it a "greater balance between the military and civilian sides." Other analysts, however, see the approach as still being a predominantly military one. They point out that the "core goal of the United States" in the blueprint's own words, "must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan."
"The stress is on defense and less on development and diplomacy," says Mudasser Hussain Siddiqui, an aid worker. "The decision to send more human and development professionals is welcome, but if the development advisers are located within the PRTs (the provincial reconstruction teams of the international military forces) they will not be able to make a difference, unless they can de-link development work from the security goals."
The international NGO Oxfam said the delivery of aid by USAID, the US government's development arm, had had limited success in part because "the US uses foreign aid to achieve short-term or security objectives."
For political analyst Ahmed Dawi, the primary problem with the Obama strategy is an absence of a matching commitment from the Afghan side. "As an Afghan, I am concerned about a lack of strategy from our side," Dawi said. "The implementation of the American strategy will depend on the conductive environment in Afghanistan. It cannot be a one-way street. The words are promising. We have to see how they will be implemented."
Dawi's compatriot, Aziz Hakimi, an independent political analyst, is less optimistic. While the "intention is good," Hakimi said, the impulse of the US plan is worrisome. The emphasis, in Hakimi's view, is on "al Qaeda and (US) homeland security. It is not about Afghanistan. Where is the Afghan voice in all this? It is not about us."
As the United States undertakes a military buildup in Afghanistan, some civil society activists are concerned that civilians will continue to suffer. Civilian casualties from military operations has emerged in recent years as a major source of friction between the local population and coalition forces.
"What we have to see is that the intervention does not cause harm but contributes to relief and rehabilitation that the country needs," said Siddiqui, the aid worker. "The process remains very important. Security should be a priority not just in terms of killing Taliban but protecting Afghans."
Civilian security is also becoming a rallying cry for international rights organizations. "While the United States is deploying more troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda, greater attention is needed to provide basic security for Afghans in both conflict and non-conflict areas," Human Rights Watch said in a recent statement on the new US policy.
Amnesty International wants to see greater accountability for violations of international humanitarian law by coalition forces. The rights group additionally has called for clarifying and harmonizing the rules of engagement by the different international military forces present in Afghanistan. "The challenge for the United States and its allies is to ensure that the surge of international troops into the country will provide better security for Afghans and not put them at greater risk," it stated.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 18 years.