Thursday, August 12, 2010

The State of the War in Aghanistan

We believe that the United States has a powerful national interest in Afghanistan, in depriving Al Qaeda of a safe haven on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This country would also do enormous damage to its moral and strategic standing if it now simply abandoned the Afghan people to the Taliban’s brutalities.
But, like many Americans, we are increasingly confused and anxious about the strategy in Afghanistan and wonder whether, at this late date, there is a chance of even minimal success.

The trove of military documents recently published in The Times showed, once again, why this is so hard: the weakness of the Afghan Army and the corruption of the Afghan government; the double game being played by Pakistan; the failure of the Bush administration, for seven years, to invest enough troops, money or attention in a war that it allowed to drag on until it has now become the longest in the nation’s history.

The WikiLeaks documents, however, end in late 2009 and don’t show us how the war is going now or whether President Obama’s decision in December to send 30,000 more troops (the last won’t be in place until the end of this month) has a chance of altering those realities.

The answer to that question also depends on whether President Obama and his top advisers can finally secure the full commitment and cooperation of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and Pakistan’s military commander, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

The first test of the new counterinsurgency strategy, in Marja, population 60,000, did not go well. American Marines drove the Taliban from Marja’s center in late February, but the “government in a box” that was supposed to win over the population with security, services and honest governance didn’t arrive. Competent Afghan officials didn’t want the risk or the hardship of moving there.

Taliban fighters quickly began a campaign of intimidation and assassination. Many local residents have been too frightened to sign up for American-financed reconstruction projects. With too few Afghan security forces to hold the town, the Marines have not been able to move beyond Marja.

American officials say things are improving. Some schools and markets have reopened, and as of mid-July there were 21 Afghan officials working at the Interim Government Center, with another 7 to 10 positions unfilled. Marja remains isolated and dangerous.

We were told that Marja was a rehearsal for a major offensive this spring around Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city and the Taliban’s spiritual base. Breaking the insurgents’ hold there was supposed to send a powerful message that the tide of the war is finally changing. After Marja, though, the Kandahar offensive was postponed, reinforcing the impression of drift.

Mr. Obama has promised to review his policy this December. We agree that the “surge” and his new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, need time. But reports from the ground have been so relentlessly grim — July’s death toll of 66 American troops was the highest since the war began — that Mr. Obama needs to do a better job right now of explaining the strategy and how he is measuring progress. Here are some of the things Americans and American allies, who are even more anxious about the war, need to hear:

THE PLAN AFTER MARJA Do the president and his generals still believe that counterinsurgency — securing crucial areas and building up local governments — is the best chance for driving back the Taliban? Is it even possible? What lessons were learned in Marja? How has it changed their approach in Kandahar?

American officials now insist that it was wrong to think about Kandahar as a set piece offensive. The city is already under the formal control of the Afghan government, and they say Special Forces are already pounding the Taliban outside the city while efforts to improve services and security inside are under way. Claiming that the media somehow didn’t get it right doesn’t help. The White House and Pentagon need to explain clearly what is happening there. New York Times

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