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Barack Obama’s Big Fat Afghan Dilemma

8 minute read
Joe Klein

Several weeks before General David Petraeus fainted at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, General Stanley McChrystal found himself stuck in yet another inconclusive meeting of the Afghan National Security Council in Kabul. McChrystal respected many of the Afghan leaders, but there was a tendency to chew over issues to the point of paralysis, which was about as distant from the can-do, let’s-do U.S. military culture as you could get. McChrystal’s discipline is famous, but this time he began to lecture the Afghans. “My father has a son and two nephews fighting for your freedom here in Afghanistan,” he said. “How many of you have sons fighting for Afghan freedom? How many of you are willing to make the sacrifices necessary for your country’s future?”

It is a sentiment that McChrystal has expressed more than once in recent weeks, and it is a sign of the growing exhaustion and frustration in U.S. military ranks — perhaps Petraeus’ Capitol Hill collapse was another — after almost 10 years of nonstop fighting against an elusive enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan, two of the world’s most difficult battlefields. Another sign came when McChrystal visited the Helmand province town of Marjah in May and called it a “bleeding ulcer.” Marjah was supposed to be the first step before the crucial battle to secure Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban rebellion. The town was taken easily enough by the U.S. Marines and elite Afghan National Army elements in February. But McChrystal had promised the local residents a robust security, education and economic-development program — “government in a box,” he said — that has not materialized. The initial Afghan civilian government presence, according to U.S. sources, consisted of a paltry six bureaucrats. U.S. efforts to provide economic assistance were curtailed when three USAID workers were killed in Marjah in March. The Taliban quickly regrouped and are pressing the fight once again, conducting assassinations of locals who have cooperated with the Americans. In addition, the Marjah operation diverted key Afghan National Army and police forces from Kandahar province, where the more important fight — Admiral Mike Mullen has said, “As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan” — has been delayed until the autumn. McChrystal’s ulcerous comment was especially unfortunate because it reminded old Afghan hands of a similar one made by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988, just before he pulled the plug on the Soviet Union’s Afghan fiasco. He said Afghanistan was a “bleeding wound.”

(See pictures of Person of the Year 2009 runner-up General Stanley McChrystal.)

Six months after Barack Obama announced his new Afghan strategy in a speech at West Point, the policy seems stymied. There are some areas of brilliant success, especially in the counterterrorism efforts of the special-operations forces, where increased human-intelligence capabilities have yielded a bumper crop of midlevel Taliban leaders killed or captured — 121 in recent months, according to McChrystal. But the larger purpose of the mission — the stabilization of Afghanistan and the eradication of the Taliban rebellion — has not gone so well. The lack of progress has led to finger-pointing and second-guessing. There have been disagreements between McChrystal and the U.S. ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, a former U.S. Army general with extensive Afghanistan experience. The military is more generally frustrated with the State Department for not producing the “civilian surge” necessary to help secure the population. And there are increasing grumblings about the timetable set by Obama, which would begin troop withdrawals in July 2011. “It’s like fighting with both arms tied behind your back,” a former senior military official told me.

The timetable issue is a red herring. The President’s proposal, agreed to and understood by Petraeus and McChrystal, was a subtle one, conditioned on progress in the field. There was never any thought of pulling U.S. troops from the main fight against the Taliban in 2011. The President envisioned a gradual transition, beginning in the more stable areas of Afghanistan — in the north and west — and involving NATO troops as well as some American forces. The fact is, the U.S. military would have plenty of time to stabilize the situation in the Taliban-populated areas — if its battle plan were working. But the military’s initial plan, with its emphasis on counterinsurgency operations to secure the population, seems to be in need of major revisions.

(See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.)

Counterinsurgency and counterterrorism sound a lot alike, but they are diametric opposites. Counterterrorism means going after the bad guys. Counterinsurgency means protecting the good guys. The latter requires patience and extensive resources, especially the presence of a reliable partner — a “host nation,” in the words of the Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual, that will “uphold the rule of law, and provide a basic level of essential services and security for the populace.”

See pictures of the presidential election in Afghanistan.

See pictures of Afghanistan’s dangerous Korengal Valley.

It is now clear that Hamid Karzai’s government is incapable of doing that. “Karzai is not incompetent,” a Western diplomat told me. “He is acting according to his own priorities — his family, his tribe, his nation, in that order.” His family is Pashtun, from the region near Kandahar; his half brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, known as AWK, is the family’s designated strongman in the Taliban heartland. AWK has been accused of profiting from the drug trade and of stuffing his pockets with some of the private-security and transport contracts that McChrystal began distributing to local power brokers when it became clear that the Afghan National Security Forces were unable to keep the peace; none of these allegations have been proved. Indeed, the U.S. government has had a difficult time figuring out how to deal with AWK — who is tolerated by some in Kandahar, is hated by others and is certainly unlikely to be a force for good government there. The situation is further complicated by the fact that he has been on the CIA payroll in the past and may well still be. “When the Americans came in and said to Hamid Karzai that he had to get rid of Ahmed Wali,” a well-informed Afghan expert told me recently, “he could say to them, ‘I’ll take him off my payroll when you take him off yours.'”

As the situation in Afghanistan has festered, an increasingly common reaction in the Obama White House has been: Joe Biden was right. Biden opposed the more elaborate military plan. He favored a stripped-down emphasis on counterterrorism — the special-ops and Predator raids that have turned out to be the most successful aspect of the Afghan battle plan. “The problem with Joe’s idea,” said a senior U.S. official, “is that you can use those methods to degrade the enemy, but it doesn’t resolve the problem. Joe didn’t have a policy for resolving the problem.”

(See more about Afghanistan.)

Hamid Karzai does. He wants to cut a deal with the Taliban. In recent months, there have been secret meetings between AWK and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban second in command arrested by the Pakistanis — no coincidence, undoubtedly — in February. In recent weeks, it has become apparent that Karzai seems intent on working with the Pakistanis, rather than around them, to secure a deal. The firing of his highly regarded Intelligence Minister, Amrullah Saleh, was in part an offering to Pakistan. “The Paks considered Saleh an Indian agent,” a U.S. official told me. “He was part of the Northern Alliance, which was funded by India, and he was vehemently opposed to reconciliation [with the Taliban].”

There are no indications that the Taliban are willing to make peace. And there are some indications that Karzai’s government would collapse, abandoned by its non-Pashtun members, including most of the army, if he pursued this course. But no other course seems plausible. The U.S. military would like to see the Taliban lay down their arms, but that’s not likely. A deal in which the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar renounces al-Qaeda, accepts a subsidiary Taliban role in Karzai’s government and is allowed to field local militias in some of the Taliban-dominated Pashtun districts of the south seems the least unlikely scenario. (How the Afghans eventually sort out their ethnic rivalries is not a crucial U.S. national security interest, so long as there is no safe haven for international terrorists there.)

In the end, a more punishing counterterrorism effort, rather than patient counterinsurgency, may be the best way to get the Taliban to the table. At the moment, though, the U.S.-led effort to protect the Pashtun populace in the southern provinces is proving futile and perhaps irrelevant.

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