Tuesday, June 10, 2008 at 5:07 pm
In the middle of a consuming presidential election, the American public is focused on the faltering economy first and the Iraq war second. So it’s easy to forget that there’s another, older war going on in Afghanistan — one that’s shown alarming signs of deterioration in recent months, according to many experts.
But national attention focused on Afghanistan this week when First Lady Laura Bush swooped into Kabul, Bagram Air Base and Bamiyan Province on Sunday. Speaking to U.S. troops at Bagram, Bush said, “From overseeing hospitals to responding to [improvised explosive devices], your efforts are critical to our mission in Afghanistan.” The first lady stopped in the war-ravaged country on her way to a donor’s conference to raise money for Afghan reconstruction that begins Thursday in Paris.
Yet beneath the optimistic veneer of Bush’s visit is a country and a war effort that, more than six years after the initial U.S. invasion, Afghanistan watchers say, is seriously unraveling. They say that Washington is without clear goals for what it desires from Afghanistan, and, accordingly, has no clear strategy for achieving them. Security in Afghanistan has deteriorated as regional acrimony with neighboring Pakistan — and a resurgent Al Qaeda — has plagued the benighted South Asian country. Making matters worse, for the first time in seven years, Washington is unsure if its handpicked leader, President Hamid Karzai, is up to the challenge of managing Afghanistan.
“We can’t win, can’t lose and can’t leave,” said a former CIA official with experience in the region, who requested anonymity. “We’re stuck. It will be too unthinkably humiliating if we leave.”
Security in Afghanistan has been on the decline for months. U.S. fatalities climbed from five in April to more than 19 in May — more than the number of American troops killed that month in Iraq — where there are more than four times the number of U.S. troops. There have already been four U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan this month. In the volatile eastern regions, violent attacks are up 50 percent over 2007; and, countrywide, Afghanistan experienced a record 140 suicide bombings last year, according to U.S. News & World Report. U.S. intelligence has reported for more than a year now that Al Qaeda is increasing in strength in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, across a boundary with Afghanistan that is more topographical invention than sealable border.
In January, an assessment of the war effort, spearheaded by Gen. Jim Jones, a former NATO commander, and Amb. Thomas Pickering, a senior State Dept. official in the Clinton administration, portrayed a country in crisis. The report, assembled by a team of foreign-policy eminences, claims that the Bush administration had practically no policy toward Afghanistan, despite the presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops there. Jones and Pickering cited, among other concerns: “too few military forces, insufficient economic aid, and without a clear and consistent comprehensive strategy to fill the power vacuum outside Kabul and counter the combined challenges of reconstituted Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a runaway opium economy, and the stark poverty faced by most Afghans.” The assessment called for a special U.S. envoy to shuttle between Washington and Kabul and for an “eminent persons group” to develop long-term Afghanistan strategy. Neither proposal was adopted by the Bush administration.
In addition, the Jamestown Foundation, a counterterrorism-focused think tank, has sounded alarms about Afghanistan for years. Last month, analyst Antonio Giustozzi termed the Afghan police “a complete failure” and found the success of the Afghan National Army — typically “presented as a success story,” he wrote — to be merely “ambiguous.” Analyst Brian Glyn Williams (sympathetically) noted the failure of Karzai to rein in northern warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and then pointed out that doing so “would destabilize the north” — meaning that Dostum’s “authority remains largely unchallenged, at least for the time being.”
An April bulletin from the policy organization found that the Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani — “one of the most renowned mujahideen leaders of the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s” who had been rumored to be dead — operates a substantial insurgent network from Khost Province on the Afghan border. The network, allegedly run by Haqqani’s sons Sirajuddin and Badrudin, has sworn allegiance to the Taliban despite Karzai offering Haqqani a Cabinet post in 2004 as a peace offering. Jamestown credited Haqqani with introducing suicide bombing to Afghanistan.
That Afghan border with Pakistan is one of the region’s greatest sources of both destabilization and controversy. There is, additionally, no love lost between Karzai and Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf. Tension spilled over last year when Karzai publicly chided Musharraf for not doing enough to keep Taliban, Al Qaeda and other jihadist forces bent on attacking U.S. and Afghan troops and Afghan civilians from crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Turkey has offered to host a trilateral summit later this month to smooth things over.
Security, politics and the broader regional picture are all intertwined, according to Barnett Rubin of New York University. “The main priority has to be security, reducing the insurgency and terrorism,” said Rubin, one of the world’s leading Afghanistan scholars, in a phone call from Paris. “For that you need a political settlement in Afghanistan and a political settlement in the region that includes eliminating Al Qaeda’s sanctuaries in Pakistan.”
Criticisms of Karzai have intensified recently. The Pashtun leader, elevated to Afghanistan’s presidency by the international community before winning election in 2004, has always commanded a more loyal following in the West than in his own country. Despite some measures to expand his government’s writ beyond the Kabul capitol — for example, he maneuvered the warlord Ismail Khan into a Cabinet position to weaken Khan’s grip on the Iran-bordering Herat province — Karzai has rarely exercised control over most of his country. On Sunday, The New York Times reported that ” there is a growing concern in Europe, the United Nations and even the Bush administration that Mr. Karzai, while well-spoken, colorful and often larger than life, is not up to addressing Afghanistan’s many troubles.”
Karzai has also not been shy about his resentment that the U.S. shifted its focus to Iraq just as Afghanistan began one of its most turbulent periods in its troubled recent history. “Three hundred billion dollars?” he scoffed to NBC’s Tim Russert in 2006, when asked about the Iraq war’s costs. “You give that to Afghanistan and we will be heaven in less than a year.” It was not to be.
The question of what to do about Afghanistan is a vexing one. Jones and Pickering’s report noted that Washington has no clear national strategy, which makes the question of how to achieve discrete aims difficult to answer.
“It’s not black and white, not failure/success,” Rubin said. “There’s no one thing to do to stop it from falling apart, because it’s not about to, and there’s not one thing to do to save it, because it can’t be saved.”
Recently, the departing commander of NATO troops, U.S. Army Gen. Dan McNeill, suggested to a German magazine that the Western military alliance required 400,000 troops to pacify the country — which now hosts only 60,000, about 34,000 of which are Americans. Indeed, it has become practically an article of faith among Democratic foreign-policy experts that Afghanistan requires its own troop surge. In a speech last August to the Wilson Center in Washington, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said that he would pull at least two combat brigades — about 7,000 troops — out of Iraq and redeploy them to Afghanistan.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama’s presumed GOP foil in the presidential race, talked in a major foreign-policy address in October about “the consolidation of state control and reconstruction in Afghanistan, making it an oasis of stability rather than a magnet for foreign intervention and terrorism.” He called on NATO member-states to contribute more troops, but did not call for an increase in the U.S. force presence.
But the former CIA official considers it dangerous to put additional troops into the famously xenophobic nation. “There is a natural rhythm in Afghanistan,” the ex-CIA official said. “When you have a sufficient number of occupying troops then you become the issue, the resistance is generalized and then you’re in a situation no one has ever solved… If we turn [the current resistance] into a general uprising, we may not get out without humiliation. No one else has.” The ex-official did not venture a guess as to what that number is.
Despite Afghanistan remaining a relatively popular war — at least compared to Iraq — some analysts are beginning to urge a U.S. withdrawal. In his 2004 book “Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror,” Michael Scheuer, former head of the Usama Bin Laden Unit at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, suggested that the Afghanistan war could not be won. His new book, “Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq,” now argues it is already lost, and the U.S. should get out. And, in The New York Review of Books last month, Thomas Powers stopped just short of urging an immediate U.S. withdrawal as he detailed the many intractable dilemmas posed by Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Afghan resentment against U.S. and NATO forces is increasing. According to a December poll conducted by ABC News, only 42 percent of Afghans “rate U.S. efforts in Afghanistan positively,” whereas nearly 70 percent did just two years earlier. More than 40 percent said the Taliban had increased in strength in their area, and barely half trust coalition forces to provide security.
The most coherent goal the U.S. can hope for in Afghanistan, according to the ex-CIA official, is probably the avoidance of national humiliation. “I suppose that’s the best we can do with Bush’s wars,” the former official said.
Update: An earlier version of this story reported that there were 15 American casualties in May in Afghanistan. The reporter came to that figure using Pentagon notices. After publication, Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly stated that the number exceeded 19.
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