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Can a Surge Strategy Work in Afghanistan?


The latest talk out of Washington focuses on the idea of a “surge” in Afghanistan to match the strategy implemented in Iraq. Of course the major challenge facing Iraq was never accomplishment by the U.S. military of a series of military objectives. It was achievement of political objectives. On this score, Afghanistan was never as daunting as Iraq: it has a Government with broad popular support and a national consensus behind it. On the other hand, things are trending badly.

A few weeks ago, I sat with an Afghan friend who served in President Karzai’s government and reviewed with him the challenge he saw for his country, and how he felt the United States would be able to work with the Afghan authorities to overcome it. My friend was not happy with the situation in his homeland, and indeed, his attitude was more somber on this meeting than I recalled on any of our recent prior encounters. “The security situation is eroding quickly,” he said. “In Kabul and in previously pacified areas of the North, the Taliban are making inroads.” He was discouraged about the prospects for the coming year. The biggest challenge, he said, was dealing with Pakistan and the shelter it afforded to Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province, and particularly in tribal areas like Waziristan. This had been neglected too long, he said. But then he cited three points on which he felt U.S. efforts were actually counterproductive:

  1. Getting the NATO allies to pony up more support. “The Europeans in particular seem actually to bristle when the Americans try to get them to do more. They seem resentful.”

  2. Opium poppy eradication. “No doubt this is an important objective for the Government. And no doubt the way the U.S. is pursuing it does us much more harm than good.”

  3. Prisoner release and amnesty programs. “Reconciliation with various tribes and clans is an important objective. The U.S. detention operations get in the way of our program. Beyond this, the Americans constantly defy Karzai’s Government, giving the population the sense that we aren’t the masters on our own territory and that the Americans are just the latest in a long series of colonial overlords. That’s not accurate, but the American detainee policy is unjust and extremely stubborn and it costs the Karzai Government.”

Reading through the press today, I see each of his points reflected in current reporting out of or relating to Afghanistan.

Dwindling Patience from the Allies
It’s no longer possible to disguise the pique that America’s closest allies now express over the conduct of the War on Terror. Typically, the American press doesn’t like to report it. One of the clearest signs came when Prince Andrew gave an interview to the International Herald Tribune. American behavior had given rise to a “healthy skepticism” towards America in Britain, he said. His critique focused more properly on Iraq, and he said that Britain gave its advice, and the American leadership refused to give it serious consideration.

British royals do not generally shoot their mouths off about important questions that affect the “special relationship.” I’d bet that Prince Andrew’s comments would not have been given without careful vetting with Whitehall. And there is no mistaking that the expression of frustration applies just as much to Afghanistan as to Iraq.

And yet more unpleasant news for Washington and Kabul comes in the Berliner Morgenpost, where we read that the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel is prepared to “just say no” to the American and Afghan request that it increase the size of its deployment. German troops are located in Kabul and in the Northern band from Masar-i-Sharif to Faisabad. The Northern zone was considered about as safe as things got in Afghanistan, but those days have passed. The paper reports that U.S. Defense Secretary Gates had requested a build-up of 3200 troops. The answer from Berlin is “no.”

Notwithstanding massive pressure from the United States, Germany will decline a further deployment of Bundeswehr troops in the South of Afghanistan. “I expect that we will continue to provide support at the level envisioned by parliament’s mandate,” said German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung (CDU) in Berlin.

The Poppy Problem
The Bush Administration has continued, over the opposition of the Karzai Government and its NATO allies, to push an aggressive program for the eradication of opium poppies. The opposition is not related to the objective of eliminating the poppy crop—everyone is agreed that it’s an appropriate objective. The question is how you achieve it without playing straight into the hands of the Taliban. The consistent criticism that has come even from those involved in the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is that the Bush Administration is concerned about looking tough against drugs, and thus appealing to its base domestic constituency. This domestic political point seems to trump pursuing effective strategies to deal with the problem. Where have we seen that before? A definitive study has just been released,(PDF) with damning conclusions.

A report by the Center on International Cooperation of New York University –- Counter-narcotics to Stabilize Afghanistan: the false promise of crop eradication — released in the run-up to a major international meeting on Afghan policy in Tokyo, warns that U.S.-driven efforts to eradicate the country’s opium crop, rather than deprive the Taliban of funding, will instead make more drug money available to fund insurgency, terrorism, and corruption. The report, co-authored by Barnett R. Rubin with Jake Sherman, argues that the international community’s priority of eradicating opium production disproportionately harms impoverished farmers, who lack legal livelihoods. Depriving these rural communities of their livelihoods before secure alternatives are available drives them to align with the Taliban. The eradication policy also fails to target traffickers and processors at the high end of the value chain, whose gross profits make up 70-80 percent of the drug economy. It is their profits, not those of farmers, that are passed on to the Taliban, other illegal armed groups, and Afghan government officials who protect the drug trade.

“Proponents of ‘forced eradication’ believe they are integrating counter-narcotics with counter-insurgency, but instead are making badly conceived counter-narcotics a recruiter for the insurgency,” according to Rubin. “If ‘forced eradication’ is implemented where economic alternatives are not available, Afghans will conclude that foreigners are in Afghanistan only to pursue their own interests, not to help Afghanistan.”

Prisoners With No End in Sight
But poppy eradication is not the only area where the Bush Administration is the prisoner of its own brain-dead rhetoric. Detainee policy, which even its authors now regularly label “disastrous” is an even more convincing case for the proposition. And the New York Times offers a distressing story out of Guantánamo, but the report comes from Carlotta Gall and Andrew Worthington out of Kabul:

Abdul Razzaq Hekmati was regarded here as a war hero, famous for his resistance to the Russian occupation in the 1980s and later for a daring prison break he organized for three opponents of the Taliban government in 1999. But in 2003, Mr. Hekmati was arrested by American forces in southern Afghanistan when, senior Afghan officials here contend, he was falsely accused by his enemies of being a Taliban commander himself. For the next five years he was held at the American military base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where he died of cancer on Dec. 30.

The fate of Mr. Hekmati, the first detainee to die of natural causes at Guantánamo, who fruitlessly recounted his story several times to American officials, demonstrates the enduring problems of the tribunals at Guantánamo, say Afghan officials and others who knew him.

Afghan officials, and some Americans, complain that detainees are effectively thwarted from calling witnesses in their defense, and that the Afghan government is never consulted on the detention cases, even when it may be able to help. Mr. Hekmati’s case, officials who knew him said, shows that sometimes the Americans do not seem to know whom they are holding. Meanwhile, detainees wait for years with no resolution to their cases.

It’s now more than six years after Guantánamo was opened by the Bush Administration. As Secretary Gates recently acknowledged, it’s known as a symbol of tyranny and injustice around the world. And there’s good reason for that. The people who created the Gitmo system—John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, Donald Rumsfeld—constitute a gallery of rogues intent on trampling upon the nation’s good name and reputation. They called the detainees in Gitmo “the worst of the worst” at a time when they knew that statement was a lie. The truth is that some of those detainees were dangerous terrorists, but the great majority of them were people handed over for bounty payments, most of whom were simply innocent—like the now deceased Mr. Hekmati.

Justice, as Dwight David Eisenhower said, is not just an ends but also a means. But the Bush Administration opts instinctively not for justice, but for tyrannical farces designed to back the blasphemous notion of its own infallibility. And in this case, it wounds not only America and her reputation, but also the hopes and aspirations of the Afghans for a new state offering peace, prosperity and justice to their citizenry.

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