Obama's Afghanistan strategy under siege
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - Monday's release by WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of classified
documents detailing the travails of the United States military in Afghanistan
and Pakistan's secret support for the Taliban from 2004 through 2009 comes amid
a growing crisis of confidence here in the nearly nine-year-old war.
Coming on top of the steady increase in US and North Atlantic Treaty
organization (NATO) casualties in Afghanistan - July may yet exceed June as the
highest monthly death toll for US and NATO forces since the war began in late
2001 - the unprecedented leak can only add to the pessimism that has spread
from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party to the heart
of the foreign policy establishment, and even to a growing number of
What hope was generated by President Barack Obama's appointment last month of
General David Petraeus, whose counter-insurgency (COIN) tactics are widely
credited with curbing Iraq's rapid descent into all-out civil war three years
ago, to command US forces in Afghanistan has largely dissipated as a result of
the steady flow of bad news - of which the WikiLeaks document dump and the
weekend capture by the Taliban of two US seamen in a remote part of the country
were only the latest examples.
Even before the latest events, key figures in the foreign policy elite were
breaking with the prevailing consensus of just a few months ago: that Obama's
strategy of combining classic COIN military tactics - notably, prioritizing the
protection of the population - with building the capacity and extending the
reach of the central government through a "civilian surge" could indeed reverse
the Taliban's momentum and force them to sue for peace.
In one widely noted column published by Politico in mid-July, Robert Blackwill,
a senior national security official in the administrations of both George H W
and George W Bush, called for "partitioning" Afghanistan between the Taliban's
stronghold of the mostly Pashtun south, and the multi-ethnic northern and
western parts of the country where the US and like-minded nations would
continue to base a sizeable force.
"Such a de facto partition would be a profoundly disappointing outcome to
America's 10 years in Afghanistan," wrote Blackwill, who dismissed concerns
that such a move risked creating a "Pashtunistan" that could threaten the
territorial integrity of Pakistan, in another column in the Financial Times
last week. "But, regrettably, it is now the best that can be realistically and
At the same time, Richard Haass - like Blackwill a key official in both Bush
administrations and president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations
for most of the past decade - offered a variation of that stratagem which he
called "decentralization", in last week's Newsweek cover story, entitled "We're
Not Winning. It's Not Worth It."
Under Haass' vision, Washington would reduce its efforts to build up the
central government and the Afghan army and security forces. Instead, it would
provide "arms and training to those local Afghan leaders throughout the country
who reject al-Qaeda and who do not seek to undermine Pakistan", including
Taliban leaders willing to accept those conditions, while maintaining
sufficient US forces at the ready to enforce them.
While fighting would likely continue in Afghanistan for years, Washington could
reduce its troop levels there significantly, according to Haass.
While Haass has for some time been skeptical of Obama's nation-building
strategy in Afghanistan, other influential supporters of the effort are also
calling for major adjustments in policy.
In the New Republic, Steve Coll, a veteran regional expert who also serves as
president of the New America Foundation, implicitly took Haass and Blackwill to
task, suggesting that their approach would essentially abandon the south to the
Taliban and the rest of the country to local warlords.
Instead, he called for Washington to follow the strategy followed by the last
communist ruler of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah, after the Soviet collapse
when he sought - albeit unsuccessfully - to forge the broadest possible
alliance against the Islamist mujahideen insurgency.
Washington must now - hopefully, with President Hamid Karzai's cooperation -
work to reinforce "a national consensus to prevent the Taliban or any other
armed faction from seizing power as international troops gradually pull back
from direct combat," according to Coll, who argued that, under current
circumstances, "the Afghan body politic is in increasing danger of fissuring,"
very possibly into civil war as US and NATO forces withdraw.
While the urgency with which these alternative strategies are being floated
reflects the foreign policy elite's disunity over what is to be done, recent
polls suggest that public confidence in the current strategy is in steady
Growing - although hardly overwhelming - majorities believe that the Afghan
war, currently funded at about US$100 billion a year and which last month took
the lives of 102 NATO soldiers, has not been worth the cost. Much larger
majorities believe the war is either stalemated or being lost.
Public disillusionment is increasingly reflected in the US Congress where a $37
billion emergency war bill has been held up for nearly a month amid doubts
about US strategy, doubts that even Petraeus appears unable to dispel.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, whose loyalty to
Obama's foreign policy in general and Afghanistan strategy, in particular, has
been much appreciated by the White House, has become increasingly uneasy in
He will hold hearings this week on the administration's policy toward possible
negotiations between Karzai and the Taliban, one of the areas on which the
administration - and its NATO allies - appear to be in considerable disarray.
That unease was evident Monday after the WikiLeaks release.
"However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions
about the reality of America's policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan," Kerry
said in a prepared statement. "Those policies are at a critical stage and these
documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed
to get the policy right more urgent."
The committee's ranking Republican, Senator Richard Lugar, who supported
Obama's decision last November to increase US troops levels to 100,000 by this
autumn, has also expressed growing doubts about where the strategy is headed.
He warned last week that Washington could continue "spending billions of
dollars each year without ever reaching a satisfying conclusion".
And while most Republicans remain hawkish on Afghanistan, severely criticizing
Obama's decision to set a July 2011 deadline for beginning the drawdown of US
forces from Afghanistan, some in their rank and file, including several figures
associated with the populist "Tea Party" movement, are calling for an earlier
Indeed, when the controversial Republican Party chairman Michael Steele argued
that Afghanistan was Obama's "war of choice" and suggested that it was being
waged in vain, calls for his resignation by party hawks were rejected by a
number of right-wing activists.
"America is weary," Representative Jason Chaffetz told Newsweek. "We're fast
approaching a decade [of war] and no end in sight."
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.