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    South Asia
     Oct 30, 2008
Page 1 of 3
'We're not going to win this war'
By China Hand

As the US public is dimly aware, things are not going very well in Afghanistan.

The most recent United Nation situation map for Afghanistan issued September 3 paints a grim picture: there are large swaths of the country where things are getting worse. This includes the entire area surrounding Kandahar on the Pakistan border in the south, as well as areas on the Pakistan-Tajikistan border in the northeast and other areas on the Turkmenistan border to the northwest.

Despite the deterioration of security in the Afghan countryside - illustrated by the recent massacre of 24 bus passengers by the

 

Taliban on a major highway in Helmand province - a Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan is unlikely. (See Death stalks the highway to hell, Asia Times Online, October 24, 2008)

Recall that it took years, US$5-6 billion in CIA funding matched dollar for dollar by the Saudis, and a concerted national effort by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan assisting a variety of domestic and foreign fighters to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. It also took officially sanctioned safe havens in Pakistan that the Russians wouldn't violate, and a supply of Stinger missiles to negate the vital Soviet advantage in helicopter-based mobility and firepower.

None of these conditions currently exist in Afghanistan.

The United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) can't be driven from Afghanistan militarily. Nor, however, can the Taliban be crushed in the foreseeable future.

The political will inside the US to remain in Afghanistan is not lacking, especially since the Taliban insurgency is tangled up with the unresolved issue of Osama bin Laden, who has still escaped American retribution in the Taliban-controlled or Taliban-friendly areas of eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

Democratic Senator Barack Obama, the likely victor in the upcoming presidential elections, has made support for the "Good War" in Afghanistan the necessary counterweight to his condemnation of the "Bad War" in Iraq, and has vowed to send two to three more brigades to Afghanistan in order to turn around the situation there. He is not going to put his administration on the wrong side of the "Are the Democrats too weak on national security" debate by trying to disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time.

The US is going to be in Afghanistan for years to come. The only thing that's going to change in Afghanistan is the objectives.

The Afghan adventure is expensive, onerous, and unpopular, and most of the 40 or so countries participating in the International Security Assistance Force and the host of NGOs trying to better the lives of the downtrodden Afghani people would like to see a new policy. Specifically, one that separates the existential goal of crushing al-Qaeda from the strictly local issue of what political grouping gets to run the failed state of Afghanistan, and tries to slice and dice and co-opt the insurgency instead of pursuing the impossible goal of crushing the Taliban's entrenched power in Afghanistan's mountains and countryside.

The world has made its voice heard, and America has apparently listened.

All the indications are that the US military and foreign policy establishment has already abandoned the ambitious neo-conservative objective of crushing the Taliban and remaking Afghanistan as a functioning democracy.

America's Afghanistan policy is falling into the hands of the realists, whose highest priority is maintaining a tractable and viable client in Kabul, keeping Afghanistan securely inside the US sphere of interest, holding on to a key chess piece in Central Asia's "great game" of energy resources and pipeline infrastructure, and offering the Pentagon another basing option to bedevil Russia and Iran.

Despite the absurdity of a multi-year, multi-billion dollar entanglement in Central Asia that will do little more than advance unilateral US security objectives, America's allies will be willing to demonstrate their support for new US leadership after the disastrous George W Bush years, and will probably heed an American call for a redoubled effort in Afghanistan.

The key suppliers of money and manpower to the NATO effort in Afghanistan - Great Britain, Canada, Germany, and Australia - are all under administrations that have made continued engagement in Afghanistan a cornerstone of their foreign policies but now demand a fundamental change in course.

With a broad international consensus on Afghanistan, the US will now seek to impose a firm hand on the emerging policy process - and prepare public opinion still mired in the obsolete death-match-versus-the-Taliban-and-al-Qaeda mindset pursued over the past six years at the cost of thousands of lives and tens of billions of dollars for a brave new world in which the Taliban enter the government and Afghan democracy goes out the window.

Time is of the essence - in order to halt the military decline inside Afghanistan and to co-opt a burgeoning non-US peace initiative for the region that might pre-empt US direction of the effort in Afghanistan. Otherwise, control of the terms of engagement in confronting Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency might slip from America's fingers.

In counterinsurgency, the US military learned from Vietnam that the battle is not won or lost only on the battlefield; victory in the op-ed pages of the homeland is vital as advocates of a prolonged fight in a distant land struggle to sustain the flagging will and interest of the weary populace and wary commander-in-chief.

Nobody understands this better than David Petraeus, the canny and able general who skillfully orchestrated congressional testimony, opinion pieces by himself and conservative public intellectuals, and media coverage to recast the political terms of debate, and adroitly channel the 2006 wave of US domestic opposition to the Iraq war - and the Baker-Hamilton report intended to serve as its enabling document - into the surge that, for better or worse, will keep American military power at the heart of Iraq's security equation for the foreseeable future.

General Petraeus will take the top spot in US Central Command, responsible for the entire Middle East, on October 31, and is already preparing his plan to rescue the faltering Western effort in Afghanistan.

He recently gave the Washington Post a tour of the virtual armory in which he is forging his weapons in the battle for public opinion - the Powerpoint presentations, op-ed pieces, leaks, and favorable coverage by pundits and reporters that will encourage a new president hungry for a national security triumph to give him a free hand.

From the October 16 edition of the Washington Post:
General David H Petraeus has launched a major reassessment of US strategy for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the surrounding region, while warning that the lack of development and the spiraling violence in Afghanistan will probably make it "the longest campaign of the long war".

The 100-day assessment will result in a new campaign plan for the Middle East and Central Asia, a region in which Petraeus will oversee the operations of more than 200,000 American troops as the new head of US Central Command, beginning October 31.

... experts and military officials involved said Petraeus is already focused on at least two major themes: government-led reconciliation of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the leveraging of diplomatic and economic initiatives with nearby countries that are influential in the war. ...

Petraeus' Joint Strategic Assessment Team ... is reaching out to handpicked experts as well as State Department, Pentagon and other civilian and military officials with experience in the region.

The team will comprise about 100 people, organized initially into six subregional teams, tasked with investigating the root causes of insecurity in the region with the goal of finding solutions that integrate military action, diplomacy and development work.
Petraeus' vast authority, resources and latitude in setting the terms of the Afghanistan debate should be a source of concern. As a noted authority on South Asia asserted, "General Petraeus is not in charge of our diplomacy. He can't decide whether we try to form an international contacts group on Pakistan," Barnett Rubin commented.

Ironically, Dr Rubin's allegiance to the quaint concept of civilian control over foreign policy may have cost him a seat at General Petraeus's round table of knights questing for the counter-insurgency grail.

Jim Lobe reports that Rubin's collaborator on the think-piece "From Great Game to Grand Bargain", one of the seminal documents of the Taliban engagement policy, Ahmed Rashid, was invited to join the general's brain trust. But Dr Rubin apparently was not.

After eight years of catastrophic civilian foreign policy leadership, maybe the zeitgeist of that war is too important not to be left to the generals.

But fear not. In classic milspeak, we are reassured that the military will keep an eye on the military. There's a plan:
An overview of the review team's mission obtained by The Post says that including other government agencies and other nations in the planning will "mitigate the risk of over-militarization of efforts and the development of short-term solutions to long-term problems".
Indeed, the trends both in the NATO countries and in the key South Asian countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan all point to a consolidation of expert consensus in favor of an Afghanistan change of course and a concurrent media campaign to enlighten and guide the befuddled populace in support of the new policy, all under military direction.

Already, the British flank has been secured - apparently, the UK is always needed to provide the figleaf of multilateralism for these sorts of things - with the appointment of a new numero uno for the British Army eager to support another push in Afghanistan.

In a sign of how things are changing, this development was reported as an exclusive by Kim Sengupta in Britain's left-of-center newspaper, The Independent. Those with memories of the run-up to the Iraq war will remember that these sorts of exclusives used to be the preserve of neo-con outlets like Conrad Black's Telegraph.
A general who believes a "surge" of 30,000 more troops is needed in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban will be appointed as the new head of the British Army today, The Independent has learnt.

General Sir David Richards, who will take over from General Sir Richard Dannatt, is believed to favor sending up to 5,000 more British troops to Afghanistan on top of the 8,000 already in the country. The other 25,000 troops would be made up of US reinforcements and newly trained Afghan soldiers.
In the same issue, The Independent also obligingly excerpted a platitudinous speech given by US Secretary of Defense (and possible holdover in an Obama administration) Robert Gates - to the US Institute of Peace! - apparently to reassure Europe that the Pentagon had moved beyond the Bush administration's knee-jerk reliance on military force and is prepared do things in Afghanistan in a holistic hearts-and-minds way:
We must be prepared to change old ways of doing business and create new institutions – both nationally and internationally – to deal with the long-term challenges we face abroad. And our own national security toolbox must be well-equipped with more than just hammers.
The context for all this reasonableness is, of course, the fact that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, even with the support of 53,000 foreign troops (23,000 US troops under US command, 30,000 US, British, and other troops in ISAF - the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force), has failed to gain traction in the Taliban areas and in fact is referred to as "The Mayor of Kabul" in a mocking reference to the shrinking size of his realm.

Via Dawn:
LONDON, Oct 5: The UK's commander in Helmand has dampened Britain's hopes of a "decisive military victory" in Afghanistan saying that the aim of the mission was to ensure the Afghan army was able to manage the country on its own.

Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith told the Sunday Times that this could involve discussing security with the Taliban. ... Carleton-Smith is the Commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade which has just completed its second tour of Afghanistan.

He paid tribute to his forces and told the newspaper they had "taken the sting out of the Taliban for 2008". But he stated: "We're not going to win this war." ...

He said: "If the Taliban were prepared to sit on the other side of the table and talk about a political settlement, then that’s precisely the sort of progress that concludes insurgencies like this."

"That shouldn't make people uncomfortable."
Well, it doesn't make the Financial Times uncomfortable:
LONDON, Oct 11: Britain's Financial Times newspaper has advised the US and NATO to review their present policies in Afghanistan and come to some kind of a peaceful settlement with the Taliban.

"It may be shocking that the military might of the West cannot defeat the Taliban, but it is true," said the daily in an editorial: "The unwinnable war in Afghanistan".
The French did their piece by leaking a cable from France's top 

Continued 1 2


US, Pakistan mission on target
(Oct 29,'08)

Hit and miss with Afghan air strikes
(Oct 22,'08)

US eyes a 'grand' Afghan bargain
(Oct 21,'08)

 

 
 



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