Archive for May 21, 2010
Part I, Our Guy in Kabul
The recent outbreak of violence in and around Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, underscores the difficult task for U.S. and Coalition forces face in conducting counterinsurgency operations in a country with a weak central government and a struggling national security force.
In the last week, five U.S. soldiers and one Canadian – four of them senior officers – were killed in a suicide bomb attack on a military convoy in Kabul. Then on May 19, at least seven insurgents were killed and several U.S. soldiers wounded — and a civilian contractor killed — in an unsuccessful attempt to breach the perimeter at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul.
The attacks follow the recent Washington visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. After months of criticizing Karzai publicly, U.S. officials have recently taken a softer approach with the Afghan president, who has come under fire for ignoring corruption and winning re-election through widespread vote fraud. U.S. officials have also complained about the Karzai government’s poor follow-through in providing a government presence after the Taliban is driven out an area. The slow pace of restoring civil society was highlighted after the U.S clear and hold operation around Marjah in the southern province of Helmand.
“Counter insurgency isn’t enough to win the war,” says Andrew Exum, a fellow at a Washington think tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). In a paper released last week, Exum urges the U.S. and its allies to use political, economic or military leverage to get Karzai’s government to be more cooperative and productive. “To a large extent, U.S. and allied success in Afghanistan depends on what the Afghan government does and fails to do,” Exum writes.
But it’s a mistake to assume Afghan politicians’ aims coincide with those of the U.S., Exum adds. He thinks, however, that a strategy utilizing Afghanistan’s neighbors, rivals and allies to bring pressure to bear could influence – if not coerce – the politicians to do the right thing, at least some of the time.
Despite claims of fraud, Karzai was elected president of Afghanistan and the U.S. is likely to be dealing with him for several years, so berating him to fire corrupt officials, stop wasting money and get services to the Afghans who need them in the hinterland isn’t going to work, Exum advises. “Hamid Karzai is, for better or for worse, the United States’ man in Kabul,” Exum argues.
A senior fellow at CNAS – retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno – agrees on that point, noting Karzai is more cooperative when he isn’t pushed into a corner. And Barno would know. He commanded the 20,000 U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan for 19 months starting in 2003. Karzai, he says, “works best in a positive environment … he works least effectively when he’s under pressure, when he feels threatened.”
Barno says there have been some positive signs coming out of Afghanistan since the Obama administration has been running the show: Military momentum is beginning to shift away from al Qaeda and the Taliban, thanks in part to the drone attacks that are decimating their leadership; the integration of civil and military efforts is improving and the Afghan national security forces are growing – although they still have far to go in training. Barno says Obama’s timetable to start withdrawing U.S. troops in 2011 – which he has some doubts about – nevertheless has changed the attitude of both U.S. and Afghan officials. But Barno says more work needs to be done to mend relations with Karzai and improve the effectiveness of his cabinet ministers.
Even if a better relationship develops with Karzai, Barno says he is “guarded” in his opinion of U.S. success in Afghanistan. With only about half of the 30,000-troop surge completed, however, it’s too soon to assess its success, he says.
(MORE NEXT WEEK)