Kandahar? Kandahar? What's Kandahar?

Don't look now, but President Obama's Afghanistan strategy is collapsing on his head.

The troops that Obama added to the war in 2009 were supposed to head
south into Helmand and Kandahar. Instead, the whole war is going south.

Last year, in two reviews of Afghan policy, the president twice
escalated the war, more than doubling the US troop commitment. At the
time, he gave the Pentagon til the end of 2010 to prove that General
McChrystal's vaunted counterinsurgency-cum-nation-building policy would
work. The headlong rush to add troops resulted, first, in an all-out
military campaign to seize and control Marja, a dusty, worthless
village of 60,000 in Helmand province; and, second, a planned assault
on Kandahar, the city of one million that is the birthplace of the

Oops. Marja was a complete failure, and the Kandahar "offensive" ain't happening.

This is, or should be, devastating for Obama. The Marja offensive,
last February, was touted as a demonstration of the "clear, hold and
build" COIN that McChrystal was hired to implement. That in itself was
silly, because Marja is a tiny town of little or no real strategic
importance. By March, when the Marja operation was deemed completed, it
was widely cited by the administration as a great victory. But over the
last two months, reporters who've actually been there report back that
it's still a mess, plagued by violence, that the Taliban has come back
in force. The Taliban is carrying out a reign of terror there, killing
civilians and government officials alike and battling US and Afghan
forces to a standstill.

The Marja operation was also described as a prelude to going into
Kandahar, an operation that was described as "decisive" in the
nine-year-long war. But yesterday, after a week of media reports
suggesting that the Kandahar offensive was being delayed, McChrystal
said himself in a news conference that there would be no US or Afghan
effort to move into Kandahar anytime soon. In the spring, the military
was leaking madly that the move into Kandahar would start in June, but
if it happens at all now it won't be until the fall. In his news
conference, McChrystal was asked if the Kandahar operation would be
decisive. Here's the Q&A:

Q: General, will we know by the end of the year if the Kandahar operation is decisive, if it's worked?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: I think we'll know whether it's
progressing. I think it will be very clear by the end of the calendar
year that the Kandahar operation is progressing. I don't know whether
we'll know whether it is decisive. I think historians will tell us
that. But I think, by the end of the year, we'll have enough progress
around Kandahar to be clear to the Afghan people that a substantive
change and improvement has been made, and we'll continue on that point.

Don't hold your breath.

Yesterday's Washington Post reported that Marja is failing,
that the insurgency there has regained momentum, and it reported "alarm
among top American commanders that they will not be able to change the
course of the war in the time President Obama has given them."

The day before, the New York Times reported-before
McChrystal's news conference-that the Kandahar offensive had been
canceled, under a headline that read: "Disappointing offensive in Marja
shapes Kandahar plan." It added: "The very word 'offensive has been
banned." Instead, McChrystal and Co. are talking about a civilian
surge, new efforts to support economic development and a series of new
jirgas, or councils, with President Karzai. (Last spring, Karzai
attended a jirga in Kandahar with hundreds of tribal leaders and pretty
much promised them that the Kandahar offensive wouldn't happen without
their support, which was not forthcoming. Karzai also opposed the Marja
operation, and he had to be dragged, or strong-armed, into going along
with it.)

Obama has declared repeatedly that he will start withdrawing US
forces from Afghanistan in July 2011. By now it's clear that that the
United States will be no closer to anything resembling success by then.
So, Obama has two choices: first, he will have to admit defeat and
renege on his commitment to start pulling out troops, meaning that
he'll be lambasted by the left and liberals in his own party and his
political base. Or, second, he'll have to start working immediately to
create the political and diplomatic conditions for a peace settlement
with the insurgents, including the Taliban, along the lines proposed by
President Karzai. So far, the administration has treated Karzai like an
annoying puppet. He's been disparaged, ridiculed, undermined, ignored
and sniped at, and his efforts to reconcile with the armed opposition,
including the Taliban, have been sabotaged by Washington. That has to
end. And Obama has to start wheeling and dealing with Pakistan, India,
Iran, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia to work out the terms of a
face-saving political accord.

None of those powers will help President Obama save face without
wanting something in return. If Obama doesn't want to be stuck in
Afghanistan for the rest of his term in office (i.e., until 2017) he'd
better start finding out what they want. Because every day that he
delays, the price gets higher.

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