NATO winning battles, losing
Afghanistan By Ali Gharib
WASHINGTON - "Make no mistake", begins a
new issue brief from non-partisan think-tank the
Atlantic Council of the United States, "NATO is
not winning in Afghanistan".
called "Saving Afghanistan: An Appeal and Plan for
Urgent Action", was released on Wednesday at an
event on Capitol Hill, along with two other
reports that call on the international community
and the US to "re-energize their faltering effort"
The speakers at the
release of the reports all showed equal concern
that, despite overwhelming US and international
military might, things are going badly awry in
Afghanistan and that a
comprehensive reworking of
international strategy there was needed.
"The fatal consequence, all too familiar
to those of who lived through Vietnam, is that you
can win every battle, but fail to win the war,"
said Senator John Kerry in his introductory
remarks. "Absent a new focus and a transformed
strategy, many of us fear that may be happening
Though removed from power early in
the US-led invasion of Afghanistan seven years
ago, the Taliban resurged last year, leaving
experts worried that a weak central government and
misguided international efforts could lead to a
failed state that would become a safe haven for
the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
relates to priorities and resources. And it
relates to upsetting the opponents' center of
gravity," said David Abshire, the head of the
Center for the Study of the Presidency and a
former US ambassador to NATO. "The center of
gravity of all this started with al-Qaeda and the
Taliban. And we've gotten our eye too much off
that ball in terms of our finishing the job."
The Center for the Study of the Presidency
established the Afghanistan Study Group to assess
new ideas in a manner similar to the Iraq Study
Group, whose 2006 findings fundamentally
challenged the way that the George W Bush
administration was waging the war there, and
called for a greater push in Afghanistan to
complement the Iraq war.
But the authors
of the reports released on Wednesday all
emphasized a separation of the conflicts in Iraq
and Afghanistan, despite their coexistence under
the banner of the Bush administration's "war on
"We ought to decouple - up here
[on Capitol Hill], and in the minds of the
executive branch, and I hope in the minds of the
American people and our European allies - Iraq and
Afghanistan," said ambassador Thomas Pickering, a
co-chair of the Afghanistan Study Group.
"Afghanistan has hovered too long under
the shadow of Iraq. It has its own strategic
importance," he said. "If things go bad there the
region is affected. Beyond the region, Europe and
the United States will be affected. A new homeland
for the Taliban is the last thing in the world we
want to see."
The Afghanistan Study Group
report said that the current separation was
insufficient and that there was "an emerging view
that Afghanistan and its long-term problems would
be better addressed by decoupling funding and
related programmes from those for Iraq".
Both the Afghanistan Study Group and the
Atlantic Council's reports also called for an
overhaul of the bureaucratic systems that run the
military and civil society efforts in Afghanistan.
On an international level, the groups both
called for the appointment of a high commissioner
at the United Nations to oversee international
aid, reconstruction and civil society
Much to the disappointment
of those in attendance Wednesday, Afghan President
Hamid Karzai expressed reservations about British
statesman Paddy Ashdown's appointment to the post
last week at the World Economic Form in Davos,
Switzerland. Ashdown - who had previously been the
UN high representative for Bosnia - withdrew his
candidacy, citing a lack of Afghan support.
Similar to the international
recommendation, the reports called for the
consolidation of US aims with the creation of a
special envoy to Afghanistan - referred to as the
Afghanistan czar - who would be responsible for
coordinating military and civilian operations as
well as maintaining ties to the international
efforts of the UN, NATO and Europe.
Another issue that loomed large in the
reports was the re-emergence of the opium trade in
Afghanistan. Current figures put the Afghan share
of the world opium market at over 90% - accounting
for an estimated 60% of the impoverished nation's
gross domestic product.
"Narcotics, in my
view, is the cancer that is eating Afghanistan
inside and out," said retired General James L
Jones, a former NATO commander who worked on both
of the broader reports. "It criminalizes the
society. It provides the economic incentive for
weapons purchases that come back and kill our
soldiers. And it defies, so far, any strategic
solution that we've seen."
proposed solution were discussed at the meeting -
including buying up and destroying opium crops -
where a National Defence University paper called
"Winning the Invisible War" on a proposed
comprehensive agricultural plan for Afghanistan
"It was absolutely clear for
somebody who had been in war and in war zones that
while NATO and coalition was never going to lose
on the military side, military force could not
win," said Harlan Ullman of the Centre for
Strategic and International Studies and the lead
author of the NDU paper. "It was really the civil
sector that needed great repair."
hopes that, using practices from the US
agricultural markets such as efficient means of
exporting goods, Afghan farmers will be able to
turn away from the steady income stream of opium
production and towards legitimate agriculture.
Always a hot topic in the region,
Afghanistan's relations with its neighbors was
The most contentious
issue, at the moment, is the problem with
Pakistan. The border region between the two
countries is difficult to police and is known as a
staging ground from which the Taliban has launched
its insurgency. But a slower-burning issue exists
in Afghan relations with Iran.
which Bush once labeled as part of the "axis of
evil" - enjoys what Karzai last week called "a
particularly good relationship" with Afghanistan.
The distinction as a US enemy doesn't seem to
bother Karzai, and critics of the Bush strategy in
the Middle East point to this as another example
of a time when the US should be positively
"The present US stance of
not speaking with Tehran about Afghanistan risks
increasing the likelihood that Iran will step up
its covert interference as a way of hurting the
United States," said the Afghanistan Study Group
Report, adding that if the US couldn't talk
directly, it should do so through NATO or other
Iran, under a
religiously conservative government, is a natural
ally in the battle against the opium trade.
"One of the reasons the administration was
put off [by the Iraq Study Group] was because it
said open up communication. That doesn't mean
negotiation," said ambassador Abshire. "I'm for
communication because of the different elements
that you want to reach out to," he said, noting
that the Iranian population and even politicians
have a wide variety of views about the US.