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Obama's Afghanistan Strategy: The News is Bad

Public skepticism about the war is growing. 53% say "not worth fighting"

Jim Lobe

People gather around the coffins of men who were killed in the Kandahar attack. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - While U.S. officials
insist they are making progress in reversing the momentum built up by
the Taliban insurgency over the last several years, the latest news
from Afghanistan suggests the opposite may be closer to the truth.

Even senior military
officials are conceding privately that their much-touted new
counterinsurgency strategy of "clear, hold and build" in contested
areas of the Pashtun southern and eastern parts of the country are not
working out as planned despite the "surge" of some 20,000 additional
U.S. troops over the past six months.

Casualties among the nearly 130,000 U.S. and other NATO troops now deployed in Afghanistan are also mounting quickly.

U.S. troops were killed Wednesday when Taliban fire brought down their
helicopter in the southern province of Helmand, the scene of a major
U.S. offensive centered on the strategic farming region of Marja over
the past several months.

That brought the death toll of NATO
soldiers just this week to 23, including 10 killed in various attacks
around the country on Monday, the deadliest day for NATO forces in two

"It's been a tough week," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Wednesday.

of the 23 were U.S. soldiers, bringing the total U.S. death toll in and
around Afghanistan since the U.S. intervened to oust the Taliban from
power in late 2001 to more than 1,100, according to the independent
iCasualties website.

While senior military officials attributed
the steadily rising toll to Washington's surge of a total of 30,000
additional troops by next month, as well as the beginning of the
Taliban's annual summer offensive, none other than Secretary of Defense
Robert Gates warned that the U.S. and its NATO allies were running out
of time to show results.

"The one thing none of the (alliance's)
publics...including the American public, will tolerate is the
perception of stalemate in which we're losing young men," he said in
London Wednesday on the eve of a key NATO ministerial meeting in
Brussels this week at which Afghanistan will top the agenda and Gates
himself is expected to prod his interlocutors to fulfil pledges to
provide more troops.

"All of us, for our publics, are going to
have to show by the end of the year that our strategy is on the track,
making some headway," he said.

Obama, who last November set a
July 2011 as the date after which Washington would begin to withdraw
U.S. troops from Afghanistan, has said his administration will conduct
a major review of U.S. strategy and whether it is working at the end of
this year.

The latest polling here shows a noticeable erosion of
support for Washington's commitment to the war compared to eight months
ago when Obama agreed to the Pentagon's recommendations to send the
30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to bring the total U.S.
presence there to around 100,000.

An additional 34,000 troops from NATO and non-NATO allies are supposed to be deployed there by year's end.

to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Thursday, 53 percent of
respondents said the war in Afghanistan, which last month, according to
most measures, exceeded the Vietnam conflict as the longest-running war
in U.S. history, was "not worth fighting". That was the highest
percentage in more than three years.


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The same poll found that 39
percent of the public believe that Washington is losing the war,
compared to 42 percent who believe it is winning.

While public skepticism about the war appears to be growing, the foreign policy
elite, including within the military, also seems increasingly doubtful
for a number of reasons.

Disillusionment with President Hamid
Karzai - already running high as a result of last year's rigged
elections and his tolerance for government and family corruption -
gained new momentum last weekend with the forced resignations of his
two top security officials, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and
intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, who were considered by Western
officials as among the most competent of Karzai's cabinet members.

two men reportedly objected strongly to Karzai's order to release all
accused Taliban prisoners who are being held without enough evidence
for trials.

The order was seen as the latest in a series of
moves designed to reconcile with the Taliban leadership, a step that
Washington has strongly opposed until now.

Among other things,
the U.S. fears that such a move could prompt leaders of the Northern
Alliance, which consists of non-Pashtun groups, to break with the
government and prepare for renewed civil war of the kind that
devastated Afghanistan before the Taliban first took control in 1996.

bid for reconciliation stems from his conviction, according to a number
of accounts, that U.S. strategy is unlikely to succeed in weakening -
let alone defeating - the Taliban and that his hold on power will
ultimately rely on reaching an accommodation with them.

impression may well be grounded in an accurate assessment of the way
Washington's counterinsurgency strategy is actually playing out.

the Marja campaign, which was heralded as a major test of Washington's
new strategy when it was launched in February, appears to be faltering
badly. Late last month, Washington's overall military commander, Gen.
Stanley McChrystal, even referred to it as "a bleeding ulcer".

it initially succeeded in "clearing" Taliban from the region
McChrystal's pledge that U.S. troops would bring with them an Afghan
"government in a box" that would provide basic security and social
services proved, as a feature story in Thursday's Washington Post
described it, "largely empty".

As a result of local
disillusionment with the police and the very few Afghan civilian
officials that followed the U.S. military into the area, insurgents
have regrouped and in some areas regained the offensive, according to
the latest reports. One recent study found that the majority of the
population had become more antagonistic to NATO forces than was the
case before the operation began.

The Marja experience has cast doubt on a yet more ambitious and strategically critical operation planned for Kandahar.

Washington had initially planned to launch a major military operation
to "clear" Taliban from neighborhoods in and around the city before
introducing the civilian component of the counterinsurgency strategy,
it has now reversed the order in hopes of not alienating the local
population as it did in Marja.

But the presence of more police
and civilian officials will no doubt require a build-up of NATO troops
to protect them, particularly in light of a stepped-up and highly
effective Taliban campaign to intimidate government officials who are
perceived as cooperating with the Western forces by assassinating
selected targets, including even low-level bureaucrats.

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