Saturday, May 23, 2009

Obama's Great Afghanistan Gamble

Obama's Great Afghanistan Gamble


     Everyone knows 17,000 more troops can't win the

     war in Afghanistan. So what's the exit strategy?


-By Robert Dreyfuss

May/June 2009


IF YOU CAN'T IMAGINE how President Obama intends to win

the war in Afghanistan, you're not alone. The challenge

is daunting: Along with a handful of war-plagued

African states-Somalia, Burundi, the Democratic

Republic of Congo-Afghanistan is one of the world's

poorest countries. It's been racked by 30 years of war.

Millions have fled into Pakistan and Iran; tens of

thousands more have been killed since the US-backed

jihad in the 1980s. "The reason we don't have moderate

leaders in Afghanistan today is because we let the nuts

kill them all," Cheryl Benard, Rand Corporation

specialist and wife of former US Ambassador to

Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, told me in 2004, during

an interview for a book on political Islam. Obama's

advisers say that their plan is to surge, then

negotiate-that is, beef up the US presence, stabilize

the war, and then seek a deal backed by regional

diplomacy. But that raises a host of questions,

starting with: If negotiations are the answer, who's at the table?


President Hamid Karzai: His government is, well, mostly

nonexistent. "Forty percent of the country is either

partly or entirely off-limits to the government and to

international aid groups," says Mark Schneider of the

International Crisis Group. Karzai has been derided as

merely the "mayor of Kabul," but it's worse than that:

"He doesn't have much influence with parliament, so you

can't even say that he controls the capital," says

Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence

official who advised Obama's campaign. Terrorists

strike fortified targets in Kabul, from the Indian

Embassy to the Ministry of Justice, with impunity.


Karzai is struggling to regain control. By skillfully

appointing governors and mayors, he's built a cadre of

officials loyal to the regime. Still, in the provinces,

the government's writ is weak. Law enforcement and the

courts are virtually absent, leaving the field to

criminals and drug traffickers. Corruption poisons

everything: Afghanistan is ranked 176 out of 180

countries surveyed by the corruption watchdog group

Transparency International; it produces more than nine-

tenths of the world's illicit opium; and criminal gangs

reach from the most remote districts into Karzai's own

family-one of his brothers has been accused of

involvement in the heroin trade.


The security forces: The pre-surge force of 13,100 US

and 56,420 NATO troops (including 24,900 Americans) has

been unable to secure Kabul and its environs, not to

mention huge swaths of the south. Some NATO forces do

little fighting, and some, like Canada's, are leaving.

Afghan public opinion is turning against the coalition,

partly because of rising civilian casualties caused by

air strikes. Meanwhile the 80,000-strong Afghan

National Army can't operate on its own, while the

Afghan National Police, also numbering around 80,000,

are dysfunctional, corrupt, and infiltrated by Taliban

fighters; many are merely militiamen for local warlords.


The Taliban: In the 1990s, they rode to power by

mobilizing armies of orphans and refugees brainwashed

in Pakistani madrassas; toppled in 2001, they've come

roaring back in rural areas where Karzai's feckless

governors and crooked cops are viewed with disdain.

They use threats, blandishments, and their cultlike

ideology to expand their power base, village by village

and clan by clan. Yet their hold is not as firm as it

might seem. Polls indicate that 9 out of 10 Afghans

disapprove of the Taliban. And, notes Seth Jones, an

Afghanistan expert at Rand, "Most of the tribal,

subtribe, and clan leaders don't particularly care for

the central government, and they don't particularly

care for the Taliban. They are willing to switch

sides." The hardcore Taliban, he estimates, may be as

small as just 2,000 to 3,000 fighters. They do,

however, have allies-other militant factions, criminal

gangs, and, of course, their own brethren beyond

Afghanistan's borders. In Pakistan, the Taliban shura

(council) is run by Mullah Mohammad Omar, the one-eyed

true believer who headed Afghanistan until 2001.

Farther north, Mullah Omar's allies include the

Haqqanis, heirs to one of the more violent jihadist

factions from the US-sponsored war in the 1980s, and

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, perhaps that war's most

bloodthirsty combatant, both of whom regularly dispatch

fighters into contested areas surrounding Kabul. (See

Your Tax Dollars at War.)


The new players: With US advice and funding, Karzai is

trying to counter the Taliban through a pair of new

initiatives. The Afghan Social Outreach Program is

quietly building anti-Taliban local councils. A

parallel program, the Afghan Public Protection Force,

has a pilot project under way in Wardak province to

build quasi-official militias not unlike the US-

sponsored Sunni Awakening that mobilized Iraqi tribes

against Al Qaeda. J Alexander Thier of the US Institute

of Peace is hopeful. But, he says, "It scares the

bejesus out of people because this would result in the

arming of Pashtun militias. It's extremely risky."


Which gets us back to the question: What's the endgame

of the surge-and-negotiate strategy? Already there is

plenty of negotiating behind the scenes. Karzai has an

ongoing dialogue with the Taliban, with former Taliban

allies in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan mediating, and

there are reports of talks involving Hekmatyar, too.

But Obama's advisers are split on whether those top-

down negotiations will work: Some suspect that there

can be no deal as long as the Taliban think they're winning.


An alternative approach gaining favor inside the

beltway is bottom-up negotiations to mirror the

Taliban's village-by-village strategy. "This is a

country that historically has had very little central

government," General David McKiernan, the US commander,

said last November. "But it's a government with a

history of local autonomy and local tribal authority

systems." Jones, of Rand, says the key is winning the

loyalty of rural Afghans. If it's done right-if America

maintains a light footprint, if tribal leaders see

improvements in security (as well as cold, hard cash),

and if Afghanistan's meddling neighbors can be

persuaded to help stabilize the country-then the

loyalties of the Pashtun tribes may turn. If that

happens, Jones says hopefully, "They can tip pretty

quickly." Of course, if the surge causes more civilian

deaths and further inflames anger at the United States,

they could just as easily tip the other way. Therein

lies the great risk of Obama's gamble.


Robert Dreyfuss has written for The Nation, Washington Monthly, and Rolling Stone, and is the author of

Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.



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