Afghanistan: It’s Even Worse Than You Thought
The buckets-full of leaked documents on the war in Afghanistan have elicited three responses, all misguided.
The first is that the classified papers tell us nothing we did not already know, namely that the NATO mission has long been a mess. This assertion devalues their real value — giving the war an official stamp of failure, which can no longer be dismissed as merely the opinion of naysayers or the weak-kneed.
The second is that the papers are old, covering a period ending in December 2009. The Obama administration has emphasized this, to imply that things have improved since. In fact, they are much worse, as we shall see.
The third is to overplay Pakistan’s con game: taking arms and money from the U.S. to take on the Taliban but, in fact, nurturing them as its proxy. This North American narrative has been highlighted by The New York Times. But the British paper The Guardian concluded, rightly, that the documents do not conclusively prove one way or the other what Pakistan is up to. We can be sure that it is up to what everyone else is up to: looking out for its own long-term interests, especially given that it has suffered the spillover of two wars (Soviet: 1980-88 and NATO: 2001 to date).
The most pertinent point for Canadians is that the situation in Afghanistan today is far grimmer than painted in the leaked papers.
Obama’s military surge of 30,000 additional troops has not stopped the Taliban from controlling more territory. They are using more roadside bombs and hitting more NATO convoys and bases, even in Kabul. They are organizing more suicide bombing missions and assassinations.
The NATO offensive in Marjah also failed to root the Taliban out of that key district in opium-producing Helmand province. The area remains ungovernable, “a bleeding ulcer,” as the dear departed Gen. Stanley McChrystal called it.
The much-touted offensive in Kandahar, designed to bring the entire Taliban-dominated south under NATO/Afghan control, was set for spring, then June, then July. It won’t begin this month, either, as the fasting month of Ramadan starts mid-August.
It may not begin until October, if it all, the locals having revolted against the prospect of another American-led war. So much for the Afghans wanting us to liberate them from the Taliban, whom many now consider the lesser of two evils.
The Kandahar mission — no longer referred to as a military offensive but rather as an “operation,” or “the reshaping of the climate” — is being transformed into a civilian “nation-building” project, to deliver a “government in a box.”
A good thing — if it can be done.
Mindful of the fallout of killing Afghan civilians, the Americans have curbed aerial and land bombardments as well as night raids. But they have increased drone attacks in Pakistan, killing civilians, mostly among Pashtuns, who straddle both sides of the border and share each other’s grief.
The training of Afghan security forces is not going well, either. It’s central to Obama’s pullout plan starting in July 2011. The forces were expanded too quickly and are said to be incompetent and corrupt.
Obama’s military surge was designed not so much to defeat the Taliban — they can’t be without a massive NATO commitment that is not forthcoming — but rather to weaken them enough to force them to the negotiating table. But the strategy has been rendered useless with the military offensive stalled.
Peace talks with the Taliban are sputtering along without direction. Hamid Karzai is holding his own negotiations, as is the UN special representative, both with a wink and a nod from the Americans, who can’t bring themselves to talk directly to the Taliban.
The Americans also do not like the Karzai- and UN-led campaign to remove 137 Taliban 1eaders from a UN blacklist dating back to 1999.
Nor does Washington support his idea of releasing those among the 15,000 Afghan prisoners who have not been charged with any crime.
Karzai, for years highly critical of Pakistan, is busy dealing with it. He even fired his interior minister and intelligence chief, who were wary of Pakistan and close to NATO. This is seen as Karzai giving up on NATO — the Americans, in particular — and preparing his own post-2011 parachute.
Canada, the U.K. and others are preparing to bail out as well, leaving the Americans hedging on their July 2011 exit date.
Obama has put a lid on public squabbling in his administration. But that doesn’t mean the differences among his senior advisers are resolved.
Joe Biden and Karl Eikenberry, the former American general in Afghanistan and now U.S. envoy to Kabul, were skeptical about the surge, while Hilary Clinton and Robert Gates were gung-ho.
All four were fed up with Karzai. So was Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Af-Pak, and also Gen. Jim Jones, national security adviser in the White House. They had decided to work around Karzai, only to discover that they couldn’t, so they are all back to dealing with the former American puppet turned critic.
All of which makes for depressing reading and leaves one with one overall conclusion: The sooner NATO leaves, the better.
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