Archive for December 22, 2010

AFGHANISTAN: Revisiting the Surge-istan Dilemma

Half Empty or Half Full?

A 10th Mountain Division soldier outside a village in Afghanistan's Wardak Province. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Sean Patrick Casey)

There’s a dilemma posed by the Obama administration’s assessment that the war in Afghanistan is making “significant” progress toward the ultimate goal of disrupting, dismantling and eventually defeating the al Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The report begs the question: Is the Afghanistan glass half empty or half full?

On the one hand, according to a five-page unclassified overview of the assessment report released Dec. 16, the surge of 30,000 additional troops in southern Afghanistan is showing some positive results: al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under the most pressure than it’s faced since 2001. The Taliban are being pushed out of their strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

On the other hand: Taliban insurgents can still take refuge – and al Qaeda can still plot and organize attacks – in their sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the corruption permeating the Afghan national government isn’t winning many hearts and minds among the Afghan people.

Nevertheless, both Islamabad and Kabul still get hefty amounts of U.S. financial assistance — despite the often strained relationships they have with Washington. (The forced departure of the head CIA officer in Pakistan is the most recent example.)

The administration is leaning toward the opinion the glass is half full. “We are making considerable gains toward our military objectives,” Obama said at a White House briefing last week.

But the annual progress report notes two persistent hurdles:

  • the ineffectiveness of the Karzai government in providing security and basic services for its people;
  • and the continued ambivalence of Islamabad to suppressing Taliban safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal territories along the Afghan border.

Everybody knows that failure to deal with the safe havens does present a real challenge, but I would argue that we are in the process of dealing with those safe havens — the Pakistanis on their side of the border, and Afghanistan and Pakistan and us working together,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters at a White House briefing.

On the corruption issue, Gates said the key is to identify objectives carefully. “Our goal isn’t to build a 21st century Afghanistan. Our goal is not a country that is free of corruption, which would be unique in the entire region.”

Instead, the goal should be “what do we need to do, along with our partners and the Afghans, to turn back the Taliban’s military and violent capabilities to the degree that the Afghan government forces can deal with them; and to provide some minimal capability at the local, district and provincial level for security, for dispute resolution” and other minimal government services.

At a Pentagon briefing, Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the current counter insurgency-focused strategy of clearing and holding insurgent controlled areas by the military with local and coalition civilian workers following behind to establish Kabul’s governance. He said the coalition forces in Afghanistan are capable of both counterterrorism and counter insurgency activities.

The question becomes ‘What’s the right balance at any given time on the battlefield?’” Cartwright said.

A lot of critics of the administration’s strategy have focused on President Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. Some hawks say that is too soon – since the last troops participating in the surge did not arrive in Afghanistan until September – and such a drawdown will send a bad message to the Afghan people and the insurgents that the U.S. is once again abandoning Afghanistan as it did after the Soviets were driven out.

But opponents of the war say the deadline is too vague since it is conditioned on conditions on the ground.

Cartwright says the agreement by NATO countries and the Karzai government to set a 2014 deadline for turning over security responsibilities to the Afghan National Army and National Police gives the U.S. and its allies more time to stabilize the situation and train the Afghans. “It’s very important that we all understand there is a transition process … and that process will continue on until it’s complete.”

But Vice President Joe Biden muddied the waters when he said Dec. 19 that the agreements with the Karzai government and NATO allies means U.S. Troops “will be totally out of there – come hell or high water – by 2014.” The White House later clarified that Biden meant combat troops would be out by 2014.

The question America will face this coming summer is whether to top off the Afghanistan glass or empty it and put it away.

December 22, 2010 at 11:57 pm Leave a comment


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