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Belmont Club

The crucial year

March 22nd, 2009 - 7:16 am

Bill Roggio describes the beginning of a critical year in Afghanistan.  “Scores of Taliban fighters and several Afghan officials were killed in fighting throughout Afghanistan. The violence marks the opening of the spring fighting season in Afghanistan as the Coalition and the Taliban surge forces for what is expected to be the toughest year of fighting since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.” Bing West, writing in the National Review (article by subscription) says Afghanistan is “the war that has to be won” but asks, “will our soldiers be given the chance to win it?” West writes:

To accomplish that, the administration will unveil a new strategy in April. Recently the doughty Sen. Joseph Lieberman published an op-ed in theWall Street Journal, proposing one such strategy. What is needed, Lieberman opined, is for someone to take charge, for additional troops to be sent into action, and for the U.S. Congress to sustain a nation-building strategy. This is all good advice, but implementing it will be exceedingly tricky.

Among the tricky bits is to make sure there is unity of command.  “Obama has appointed Richard Holbrooke, who played a key role in halting the war in the Balkans in the mid-1990s, as the presidential special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” But West warns that the record of such plenipotentiaries has been spotty. However well Holbrooke performs, the a divided command is almost foreordained to persist because NATO has a large role in the theater.

The immediate military tasks are clear enough. The US forces must blunt the Taliban offensive to give the Afghan army time to build up. Can enough forces be deployed? West writes “Gates is reluctant to send more than 60,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan”. He is determined to win the war largely with Afghan forces. This will require extending US forces with local understudies, both in the military and on the civil side of things. But here another problem arises. West thinks that the Pentagon does not want to repeat the partnering US military officers with local bureaucrats. So the State Department will have to team up with Afghan officials: and there are questions about whether they — and their culture — are up to it.

it will expect the State Department to beef up its own ranks and take the lead in putting Afghan civil servants on the right path. There’s a problem, though: The World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and diplomats have traditionally accepted corruption in a host nation as part of doing business.

Business as usual won’t win Afghanistan. But the most intractable problem in Afghanistan is the Taliban’s sanctuary in Pakistan across the border. West writes, “Peeling away Taliban hangers-on within Afghanistan is a sound tactic, but it’s not a recipe for success inside Pakistan’s western frontier, where Pashtun tribes are increasingly controlled by extremists. In recent decades, Pakistan’s elite in Islamabad believed their country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency could manipulate Pashtun fundamentalists, collectively called the Taliban, to make sure Afghanistan did not align with India. Beginning in the late 1970s, CIA contacts with the mujahideen were controlled by the ISI. Three decades later, U.S. officials don’t know whether the controlling interests inside Pakistan have swung against the extremists or are playing both sides.” Pakistan will remain the wild card in the situation.

So what’s the bottom line?

Afghanistan can be won, but only if things are done right. West concludes, “Obama has reason to tread carefully. Pres. Jimmy Carter also had high goals, but the gap between his performance and his rhetoric inculcated an attitude of cynicism throughout the ranks of the military. To win in Afghanistan, Obama must lobby his party to support the war effort, year after year, and to supply the necessary resources. Instead, by promising that he will win while reducing funding, he’s made a daunting task sound impossibly easy. ”

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