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Afghanistan Impasse

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A couple of weeks ago, I met with Ahmed Rashid in Madrid and heard his verdict about the rigging of Afghanistan’s presidential elections. Nevertheless, Rashid managed to be upbeat about the country’s prospects. The plan the Obama Administration was putting in place really did offer a good shot for turning things around, he insisted. The question was whether it was now too late, given the shift in American opinion. “The last seven years were really squandered,” he said.

Rashid develops these views in an essay in the current New York Review of Books that is essential reading. Early in the piece he offers a look back, which is particularly significant in light of this morning’s news that “the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict ‘will likely result in failure,'” according to a 66-page memo that the Washington Post secured. We learn that McChrystal’s analysis is a lot like the advice given eighteen months ago to President Bush and essentially ignored by him:

US officials told me in April 2008 that President Bush had been warned by his military commanders that Afghanistan was going from bad to worse. More troops and money were needed; reconstruction was at a standstill; pressure had to be put on Pakistan; the elections in April 2009 should be indefinitely postponed. Bush ignored all the advice except for asking the Afghans to postpone the elections until August. He left everything else to his successor to sort out. When Obama took over in January, the crisis was much worse and Pakistan and Afghanistan immediately became his highest foreign policy priorities. Obama added 21,000 more troops, committed billions of dollars to rebuild Afghan security forces and speed up economic development, and sent hundreds of American civilian experts to help rebuild the country. He has attempted to make the anti-narcotics policy more effective and to involve neighboring countries in a regional settlement. It’s an assertive and possibly productive new strategy, but the Obama administration has had neither the time nor the resources to implement it….

Afghanistan will occupy an increasingly prominent position on the foreign policy agenda in the coming months. Obama will be asked for a still stronger commitment, and he will certainly face a pushback from his own party. He will only be able to proceed with strong support from the Republicans–but the “party of no” will be tempted to ensure his failure for short-term political reasons. However this works out, we should remember the role that George W. Bush played in brewing the current dilemma. He denied adequate resources to the Afghanistan effort for seven years, and then, when apprised of the likely calamitous outcome, decided this would all be a problem for his successor to grapple with. That attitude made it much worse.

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