Washington Matters


Afghan Setbacks Threaten Obama Plans

How can the administration convince Afghans the U.S. will stay while assuring Americans that a withdrawal will begin next year?



Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s admission in the course of a June 10 press conference that the Kandahar offensive was being delayed till after Ramadan --ending Sept. 9 this year -- will make this huge challenge for NATO even tougher. The U.S. has been telegraphing its determination to oust the Taliban from the province it considers its spiritual heartland virtually from the moment American and allied forces entered Marja back in February. It’s debatable how long such a campaign could have been kept secret, but broadcasting it gave the Taliban that much more opportunity to prepare for the assault. And now it has even more time. The fact that the Marja operation itself bogged down in the face of Taliban resistance didn’t help.

If the U.S. is willing to commit enough troops, it can take any territory it wants, even Kandahar. The problem is in keeping the Taliban from coming back. Offering the local population jobs, roads, medical care and other social services they’ve never had can show good intentions and even win friends. But personal safety comes first. Whether that involves building a police force and judicial system from scratch or strengthening damaged tribal institutions to do the same job, civilians need to be convinced that there are local pro-government forces that will protect them. They’ve no reason to support the Americans or Kabul otherwise. It’s their necks on the block, sometimes literally.

The decision to delay the offensive in Kandahar province gives the U.S. and Kabul that much more time to build up civilian government. But the Taliban aren’t exactly sitting back passively. Just as they have in Marja, the Taliban are assassinating any Afghans they can find who may support the Americans. Most recently, that has included Haji Abdul Jabar, governor of Arghandab, and Kandahar city’s deputy mayor, Azizullah Yarmal. The message: Cross us, and you’re next.

We’ve seen this show before, most recently in Iraq during the surge. It’s painful. It’s ugly. It will probably get worse. It doesn’t necessarily mean the counterinsurgency can’t succeed. But the U.S. will have to continue the effort for years to make it stick.

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Ever since President Obama laid out his new strategy last December, the administration has stated that the July 2011 date he gave for beginning a withdrawal of U.S. troops did not mean the beginning of the end of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. David Petraeus and others will find themselves making that point ever more strenuously, particularly come December, when the White House will review the Marja and Kandahar campaigns.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies summed up the danger neatly in his most recent analysis of the conflict. “One thing is clear: The war will be lost if 2011 is treated as a deadline, and/or if the [Afghan Government] and the Afghan people, the Pakistani government and people, and our allies perceive it as a deadline. The same will be true if the timing of the campaign, and the impact of U.S. and allied actions, are defined in terms of unrealistic expectations. No amount of planning, discussion, and analysis can set clear deadlines for this war.”

And therein lies the dilemma. How do you convince ordinary Afghans that you plan to stay around long enough for them to build the capacity to defend themselves but that you’re not planning to stay indefinitely as occupiers? That’s something Obama is still struggling with. He’s running out of time to come up with an answer.




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