Afghanistan: U.S. Gains Momentum
But allied forces need to consolidate any victories in what will be a make-or-break year.
Afghanistan is about to acquire a grim moniker: America’s longest war. From Congress’ passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964 to the signing of the cease-fire in January 1973, U.S. combat in Vietnam lasted eight years, five months, 21 days. The war in Afghanistan will exceed that on March 29.
And still the end is a long way off. Although President Obama promised in his December speech at West Point that American troops would begin drawing down in July 2011, the withdrawal will be staggered over years. It will take until 2014 at the earliest before the Afghan army and police are prepared to take on the Taliban without significant help. Afghans are undermanned, ill-trained, ill-equipped and lacking in logistics and secure facilities. And corruption remains an overwhelming problem for the police as well as for what little formal judiciary now exists.
But there are some signs that Obama’s plan is working. The battle to retake Marja is largely won, an operational success and a good starting point. To transform it into a strategic victory, though, U.S., coalition and Afghan security forces will need to maintain a presence while civilians, including those locals who can be persuaded to cooperate, build government and infrastructure where little or none exists now.
Only after all that’s accomplished will U.S. forces and their NATO allies be able to safely pull out, handing over full control to the Afghans. Without reliable security forces and government institutions in place, there would be little to prevent the Taliban from retaking the town. “It wasn’t that the Taliban were forced out [of Marja],” says Nathan Hughes, a military analyst with the private intelligence firm Stratfor. “They chose to leave.”
The offensive comes at a moment when roughly 9,000 of the 30,000 additional U.S. troops on their way to Afghanistan have been deployed. The full complement will be in place by the end of this summer, bringing the U.S. presence to 100,000.
The next move is likely to be in Kandahar, probably in late spring or early summer. Unlike Marja, where there was no sustained presence of either coalition or Kabul government security forces prior to this year’s campaign, the city of Kandahar hosts NATO’s southern regional command. But the Taliban also view the city as their spiritual birthplace. Over the past five years, the surrounding province has become a hotbed of the insurgency, and the city itself has suffered numerous suicide bombings. The aim of the new campaign will be to secure the city and surrounding districts.
Helping the NATO effort is the fact that regional support is growing stronger, a big improvement and a potentially game-changing development for the war effort. Most important, Pakistan is cooperating more in anti-Taliban operations, providing intelligence, securing supply routes and helping to capture Taliban leaders. Russia is letting the U.S. use more Central Asian territory and airspace for logistical support. India is helping indirectly, resuming talks with Pakistan on antiterrorism cooperation and Kashmir. If those talks are successful, Pakistan will be able to focus more on the Taliban. Even the Chinese are helping by offering greater economic support to Pakistan.
This will be a make-or-break year. Allied victories in the field will buy time to build up the Afghan army and police forces, root out corruption and improve local governance. They will also ratchet up the pressure on local Taliban leaders and other militants to accept Afghan government overtures to switch sides and back President Hamid Karzai’s national reconciliation effort. And they’ll buy continued support from the U.S. Congress, which for now is largely offering bipartisan backing.
“There’s nothing that will help like demonstrable success,” says retired Army Lieutenant General Daniel W. Christman, a senior counselor to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “As long as we can demonstrate progress with the Afghan government authorities who will be responsible for turning over what’s cleared and held, and as long as the Pakistan side holds up, we can make the case that we need to sustain the military presence even beyond the summer of 2011.”
But Obama won’t get a second chance. “The president doesn’t have an unlimited amount of time. He probably has about a year to show progress,” says Lee Hamilton, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former chairman of the House Committee on International Relations. “If the public senses an impasse or high casualties, they’ll back away pretty quick. You can’t carry out a policy indefinitely against the will of the American people.”
Any reversal would quickly drain political support for the president at home. Some Democrats would call for a quick withdrawal, and Republicans would attack Obama, claiming that the GOP is better able to handle U.S. national security issues. Obama would be blamed for “losing” Afghanistan, threatening his reelection chances in 2012. That’s one more reason he’ll pull out all stops to prevent a Taliban victory.
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