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By Jose Rodriguez
Last week, the Obama administration released its much anticipated assessment of the war in Afghanistan.
After seven years of neglect, President Obama made Afghanistan a top foreign policy priority. By the end of 2009, a strategic policy for Afghanistan was decided, which resulted in a surge of 30,000 additional troops. However, it was not until summer 2010 when all of the troops were in the country, bringing the total number of American troops to 97,000. The counter-insurgency strategy, therefore, has had roughly three months to operate at full capacity, a point mostly neglected in the mainstream media.
Though President Obama agreed to 30,000 additional troops, it was still fewer than what the military had requested. General David Petraeus, Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), has therefore focused on a triage approach, which placed our forces in the major population centers, particularly in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces. These southern provinces have been the strongholds of the Taliban.
Many in the media, from liberals on MSNBC, to conservatives like Joe Scarsborough and George Will, predicted total and complete failure in Afghanistan. Following the release of the assessment, the media has basked in the glory of its cynicism. Headlines, like the following, are ubiquitous: “Obama’s Afghanistan Report: Progress and Challenges”, and “Afghanistan Report Finds Progress ‘Fragile,’ Offers Few Details”. Even the language in the report suggests that the Obama administration is not impressed with the progress made thus far.
The report highlights three areas of progress: disrupting and dismantling al Qaeda; Pakistan; and Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has been dwindled as a result of our attempts to hunt them down and kill them. Because of our intense efforts, they have been forced to find safe havens in more remote (and less secure) areas, making it more difficult for them to plan, prepare, and carry out acts of terrorism. Our efforts have been both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially since al Qaeda has been in hiding on the Pakistan side of the border. The report underscores our government’s concern that al Qaeda could threaten the stability of Pakistan, a nuclear armed nation.
Pakistan, in the last year, has been cooperating with US efforts to root out al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the FATA region. These efforts have had deadly consequences for Pakistan’s civilians and military. Nonetheless, Pakistan has to do more to develop the FATA region, which will do more to bring stability to the region. This will do more to deny al Qaeda and the Taliban safe havens than military action.
Afghanistan is also an area where there has been progress. The report neglects any discussion of Hamid Karzai and accusations of corruption, which has earned the report criticism. Regardless, the report highlights efforts by the US to begin transitioning all responsibility to the Afghans. Though the US military will be out of Afghanistan by 2014, the US will be there to assist Afghanistan for years to come. The surge of civilian resources has also had the benefit of improving the competence of the Afghan government and government programs. They have also been monitoring progress in combating corruption and emphasizing accountability. The most important progress has been demonstrated in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where US forces have displaced the Taliban.
For seven years, the Bush administration neglected Afghanistan. During that time, all the energy, focus, and resources were diverted to Iraq. Afghanistan was forgotten and assumed to be a complete success. The Taliban took advantage of our situation in Iraq, and they re-established themselves in many parts of the country. Indeed, they set-up secret governments, which, in many respects, were more responsive to the civilian population. Since President Obama’s surge, the Taliban’s gains have been reversed. As we approach July 2011, the US will be evaluating the ability of Afghan security forces to competently assume full control over areas cleared and held by American and coalition forces.
The report also makes it clear that, while these improvements are crucial, they are also fragile and reversible.
But amid all the back-patting of the media and critics of the Afghanistan war, the ability of US forces to clear and hold the south is an important indication that we are indeed turning the corner. In places like Marjah and Nawa, the Taliban, who were once the dominant presence, have been completely displaced. Bazaars, restaurants, and businesses are open. The people are no longer concerned about Taliban intimidation, since they know that US forces are there to protect them. The counter-insurgency strategy is working, albeit slowly, and it needs time.
Richard Holbrooke, a legendary diplomat, famous for his efforts to end the Bosnian war, died on December 13th. He was the Obama administration’s lead diplomat to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Liberal critics of the war, especially on the Huffington Post, have latched onto his final words: “End the war in Afghanistan.” However, for those who knew Holbrooke best, his final words were not a death-bed plea, but part of jovial banter between himself and his family. Ever the obsessed and driven man, he was focused on bringing about a solution to the Afghan war, even on his death bed. His family and the doctors around him were trying to get him to calm down and rest, and they asked him what they could do to calm him down. He responded, “Stop this war.”
In the final analysis, this war will not be ended through military force, a fact everyone (including Holbrooke) understands. But there, unfortunately, has to be force. In order for there to be a political resolution to this conflict, the Taliban has to be brought to its knees. If the Taliban feels as though they have the ability to succeed over American and ISAF forces, they will not negotiate. If we pull out now, as critics have urged, the Taliban will undoubtedly successfully bring down the fragile Afghan government. Needless to say, al Qaeda will, once again, have the freedom to organize, plan, and export terrorism, just as they did before 9/11.
The United States has abandoned Afghanistan twice.
The last time we abandoned Afghanistan was in the early lead up to the war in Iraq. We allowed the Taliban to become resurgent, the government to become corrupt, and lost our legitimacy with the Afghan people. This abandonment has caused made it difficult to regain the trust of the Afghan people.
The first time we abandoned Afghanistan was after the Soviets withdrew their forces. We had been secretly supporting, funding, and arming the mujahedeen’s efforts to expel the Soviets. Once that conflict drew to a close, we stood back as Afghanistan fell into a bloody civil war. Over 400,000 Afghans were killed as a result. Also, more importantly, the Taliban were able to grab control of Afghanistan.
If we abandon Afghanistan again, then we will have blood on our hands. To be sure, there are no good options. To be sure, this is not a war we can win. But what we can do is bring stability to Afghanistan and allow them an opportunity to take control of their own future. For that to happen, we have to continue our efforts against the Taliban, deny al Qaeda sanctuary, and improve governance in Afghanistan. This will require time and patience.
Both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars provide an excellent lesson for the American people: do not support foolish military ventures that will be difficult to get out of. As the saying goes, “You break it, you bought it.” And now the American people are feeling buyer’s remorse.
Be sure to read my first post on the Afghan war: https://dissentiscool.wordpress.com/2009/03/30/whats-the-deal-with-afghanistan/
So, what’s the deal with Afghanistan?
Barack Obama has been President… about 68 days? And already, as he plans to draw down 100,000 troops in Iraq over the next 18 months, and send another 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, there are already people describing the war in Afghanistan as his “Vietnam.” What is being neglected is the fact that he has inherited two horrific wars, both of which are unpopular, especially within the Democratic party. While these wars may very well suffer from a lack of public support, he is in the difficult position of having to recraft American policy so that he can safely exit both arenas, while shifting focus onto Al Qaeda… remember those guys? The ones who attacked us on 9/11?
Those who would compare President Obama and President Bush’s approach to the wars simply are not paying attention, or are hoping he fails. In Iraq, as mentioned, he is drawing down troops in preparation for an exit before 2011. Within Afghanistan, President Obama is already trying to build an international coalition so that it is not just the United States that bears the full burden. Due to the iron grip of the NeoCons in Bush’s first term, there was virtually no attempt to build a coalition beyond a few token troops from our closest allies. Also, President Bush generated so much animosity and disdain that few nations were willing to step forward and send troops to either Iraq or Afghanistan. President Obama has gone on a diplomacy offensive in order to round up support. He is very popular around the globe, a fact he hopes will gain him the support of world leaders and their troops. In addition to troop increases, President Obama is also going to send civilian experts to Afghanistan to help the fledgling nation develop its economy and political structures. They will also increase the training of Afghan security forces so they can bear responsibility for their own long-term safety.
While President Bush ignored the war in Afghanistan, assuming that the mission was accomplished, the Taliban slowly made a come-back and learned the lessons of guerrilla warfare that were being taught in Iraq. President Obama has promised to refocus our efforts into Afghanistan in order to keep the Taliban away from power, and to prevent them from recreating a safe haven for Al Qaeda. The central strategy will be one of divide and conquer. The Taliban is fractured, with two-thirds of Taliban forces more concerned with local issues, while the other third, led by former Afghan leader Mullah Omar, want to fully regain their control of power. The President hopes that by taking a political, rather than military, approach with the Taliban forces focused on local issues, he can pit the Taliban against itself and against Al Qaeda allies. This strategy also won glowing praise from Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai.
Another fact, which was ignored by President Bush, was that the Taliban have found a safe haven along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. This is where counter-insurgency operations will have to be conducted, and there is already evidence that President Obama is using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, known as Predator Drones, to strike at Taliban and Al Qaeda militants hiding along that porous Pakistan/Afghanistan border. The strikes, which have increased dramatically since August 2008, have sown distrust and division within the Al Qaeda ranks, an effect that they hope will be replicated within the Taliban. A major concern, however, is that there have been numerous drone attacks that have killed civilians. These attacks have been condemned by President Hamid Karzai, who has insisted that attacks on civilians must come to an end. The attacks have had the effect of adding to anti-America sentiment in some areas, which is not helpful in the long-run.
But it is not just the fact that the Taliban and Al Qaeda enjoy protection along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border: the Pakistani military also needs to do more to root out these terrorist elements, which requires counter-insurgency training. Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, made a trip to those countries in early February in order to demonstrate the Obama administration’s desire to focus on that region’s woes. Appearing on the Charlie Rose show, Holbrooke spoke about the need for Pakistan’s military to evolve away from being India-centric and to focus on counter-insurgency training. He also indicated that he would like to see more Pakistani troops along the border. “There is no way,
Charlie, that the international effort in Afghanistan can succeed unless
Pakistan can get its western tribal areas under control,” Holbrooke said. The Pakistan government needs to rein in terrorist organizations within, or there can be disastrous consequences. As was seen in December, with the attacks in Mumbai, these terrorist elements want to spark a larger war between India and Pakistan so they can continue their operations along the western border of Pakistan. The Taliban and Al Qaeda represent a threat to their own continuance as a nation, a threat they need to better understand. President Zardani’s wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated by the Taliban, a prefect and personal example of the Taliban threat. Therefore, it becomes a necessity for the U.S. to train the Pakistani military and to provide support for the Pakistani government. This is a regional problem, which President Obama will work hard to resolve.
Though it is important to refocus on Afghanistan, President Obama needs to understand that the continued presence of U.S. troops in the middle-east is a factor in increasing animosity towards our nation. For instance, one of Osama bin Laden’s main grievances against the U.S., pre-9-11, was the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. This sentiment was felt across the Arab region, and it is felt even more powerfully as the U.S. is engaged in two wars in the region. However, despite this reality, President Obama has inherited Bush’s mistakes, and now he has to make decisions that were forced upon him by his predecessor. His choices range from bad to worse. In the short-term, it is necessary to drive back the Taliban in militarily, but in the long-term it is necessary to provide economic support and to help rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure. The seeds of this strategy have been planted already, as the civilian diplomats en route to Afghanistan are going to focus more on local development and governance, as well as security training. The political solution to the war in Afghanistan is ultimately what will bring us “victory”… which, for many Americans, is defined as bringing our troops home safely.
For President Obama, this the top priority, in terms of foreign policy. After his first National Security Council meeting, Obama was “calm and cool,” while others (such as Rahm Emmanuel) were stunned. “The general feeling was expressed by one person who said at the end, ‘Holy shit.'” There are a multitude of problems, including reining in the production of opium, curbing government corruption, and forging unity among the differing regions and warlords, and creating a sustainable and responsible government. These are some tough challenges and President Obama seems eager to take the challenge. He must, however, keep in mind his history: the Soviet Union deployed over 100,000 troops into Afghanistan and they were ultimately defeated. If he wants to avoid a quagmire, then he needs to split the civilian populations from the Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents through positive developments in their society. He also needs to make sure that, in the long run, there is an Afghan face on both their government and military. This is a dangerous time for Afghanistan. There can be virtually no mistakes.
AAAAnd on a completely different note, just for the sake of levity, some hilarious pictures I found.
I quite enjoy the first one…
Remember her? How could we forget?