Obama's Trap: Bullets, Bodies But No Sign of Taliban
THERE was an eerie echo of wars past at the weekend, as American and Afghan troops launched what is being billed as the showcase opening of Barack Obama's new strategy to win in Afghanistan.
In the hours before dawn on Saturday - local time - the first units of a 15,000-strong assault force were on their haunches in mud in the pivotal southern province of Helmand, set to pounce on the Taliban forces holed-up in a mud-walled town called Marja.
But the time difference meant it was still Friday evening in Washington. There, a sell-out audience trudged through snow and slush to get to the E Street Cinema for the opening of an Oscar-nominated new film - The Most Dangerous Man in America.
This is the engrossing story of Daniel Ellsberg and how, in 1971, he changed the course of the Vietnam War by leaking the 7000-page Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg outfoxed efforts by an enraged President Richard Nixon to thwart publication - by slipping segments of the highly-classified document to a succession of editors who could publish piecemeal before each was injuncted by the White House.
It was Henry Kissinger, Nixon's secretary of state, who dubbed Ellsberg a dangerous man. But when the lights went up after Friday's screening, the 78-year-old who emerged on stage for an audience Q&A was welcomed more as a spirited grandfather from whom a new American generation might learn, than as a threat to national security.
Oddly, there was no answer for a question that had a profound impact on his audience.
Posed by Ellsberg himself, it was this: How could one of Obama's key men in Afghanistan appear before Congress and not be quizzed on his spectacular conversion from prophet of doom to cheerleader-in-chief for the new Afghan strategy?
As the President mulled the military's plea for tens of thousands of new troops last year, his ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, cautioned Obama: "[Afghan] President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner."
Warning that Karzai wanted to see the US bogged down in Afghanistan for ever, Eikenberry seemed to be warning Obama of a deliberate Afghan trap.
His cable, subsequently leaked, left nothing to the imagination: "The proposed counterinsurgency strategy assumes an Afghan political leadership that is both able to take responsibility and to exert sovereignty in the furtherance of our goal ... [But Karzai] and much of his circle do not want the US to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further."
When he appeared before Congress in December, Eikenberry assured lawmakers that all was well, that his worries had been allayed and Obama's plan to rescue himself and the people of Afghanistan had his full support - and nobody pressed him on how the road from Kabul to Washington now seemingly passed through Damascus.
Similarly, Obama's military chief in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has had a dramatic change of heart.
His plea for extra troops last year was couched in remarkably defeatist language on the scope of the challenge in Afghanistan. Without additional troops within a year, he warned that the war effort would likely result in failure.
Fast-forward to the first week of this month and McChrystal was in Istanbul to meet NATO officials. Only 4500 of the additional 30,000 troops authorised by Obama had landed in Afghanistan, but McChrystal was remarkably upbeat: "I'm saying that the situation is serious but I think we have made significant progress in 2009, and beginning some progress and that we'll make real progress in 2010."
These are the men directing the civil and military assault on Marja.
Explaining the options for insurgency fighters in Marja before the assault on the town, McChrystal explained to reporters that they could stand and fight or lay down their weapons and take the side of the Afghan government.
He did not offer a third option which has been standard Taliban MO - to melt away, to regroup to fight in another time, in another place.
That seemed to be borne out by reports from embedded reporters during the first 48 hours of the assault - the adjective ''intense'' was used a couple of times to describe gunfire; but more often the word used was ''sporadic'' or ''scattered''.
"Actually, the resistance is not there," the Afghan defence minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, said. "Based on our intelligence reports, some of the Taliban have left the area - but we still expected there to be several hundred."
Centres like Marja have been cleared of Taliban fighters before. But because the US and Afghan troops have then moved on, the Taliban has been able to circle back to retake the towns.
This time, McChrystal and Eikenberry are offering something different, what McChrystal describes as ''a government in a box'' - a newly minted Afghan governor, a team of Afghan administrators and a 2000-strong police force are on standby to "take and hold" the town within days.
Yesterday US and Afghan forces in Marja were still doing a house-to-house search for Taliban fighters and their weapons and explosives caches, but an Afghan general briefing reporters claimed that the whole area was now under allied control.
However, before the government in a box can be airlifted into Marja, McChrystal has to address a public-relations challenge that deals with bodies in boxes. When his forces called for a heavy hit on a nest of Taliban gunmen on Sunday, the rocket was almost 300 metres off target and as many as 10 people, five of them children, died when a different compound was hit.
Suddenly, all the media briefings about how well the assault on Marja was going sounded like so many that we have heard in eight years in which the Taliban has been a more convincing enemy than the Karzai government has been a convincing ally.