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Rethinking the Afghan Strategy

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With the change in command in Kabul, is it time to reexamine the strategies being applied? It seems widely understood that the Obama Administration does not intend to make a major decision about the level of commitment in Afghanistan until after the fall elections, but there is still the issue of the specific tactical mix that was McChrystal’s signature. Some elements are tightly linked to the counterinsurgency strategy that is even more closely identified with his successor, David Petraeus. But other elements, particularly the political rather than military, have been controversial. Ahmed Rashid probes further in an important article in today’s Financial Times.

First he offers a more sensible evaluation of the recent events than the rather tabloid-style coverage that dominated mainstream U.S. media:

Much has been made of President Hamid Karzai’s erratic and self-serving style of ruling, especially given last year’s rigged presidential election and the corruption and poor governance of which he is often accused. What is less well known is the dysfunctional nature of Mr Obama’s team. Since they were appointed, the senior officials who decide US policy in the region have been at loggerheads. The White House has failed to consult Richard Holbrooke, the state department’s special representative to the region. In Kabul, Gen McChrystal and retired General Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador, have at times barely been on speaking terms. In turn, Gen Eikenberry and Ann Patterson, the US ambassador to Pakistan, have had sharp differences with Mr Holbrooke. In the Pentagon, there have been acute differences between the generals on policy and policy towards Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s civilian leaders. The burning issue below the surface has been the generals’ reluctance to accept Mr Obama’s time-line – the start of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011. As one US military officer told me: “You don’t fight an insurgency by the clock.”

The underlying differences are well-known to Afghan and Pakistani leaders, who have tried to exploit them. They are equally familiar to Nato officials, who wonder why Mr Obama has not resolved them earlier. The need to put a lid on this simmering cauldron saw Mr Obama frame Wednesday’s sacking as a test case for civilian leadership over the military. He delivered tough messages emphasising to the military the need for it to come fully under civilian authority and to his diplomats and officials that they needed to end the disarray in their ranks.

And then Rashid comes to the crux of the matter:

The real crisis, however, is that the US-Nato strategy in southern Afghanistan has barely made a dent in the Taliban’s resistance, which is spreading across the country. Nato’s offensive in Marjah, in Helmand, is five months old and still has not secured the area. The anticipated surge to secure Kandahar province has been postponed due to the Taliban’s penetration of the region. Seventy-nine Nato soldiers have been killed in June so far – the highest monthly figure since the war began. Mr Karzai wants to talk to the Taliban not fight them. The Europeans have also been urging the Americans to start negotiations, so a political solution can be found before the start of the drawdown. But Mr Obama’s aides insist the Taliban must first be dealt a military blow.

That may not be possible, so a political strategy must now be paramount. The Taliban leadership has let it be known it wants to talk to the Americans. Many Afghans also want Washington’s participation in the talks, so the US can be a fire-break, ensuring Mr Karzai does not make too many concessions, and preventing neighbours such as Pakistan from imposing conditions upon Kabul.

So the real question in the background is whether the Obama Administration can accommodate the view taken by Karzai and shared by many of the NATO allies that the time has come for dialogue with at least part of the Taliban leadership—before the decisive punch that McChrystal had planned against the Taliban strongholds in the south.

As McChrystal’s term came to an abrupt and embarrassing conclusion, his plan was still in mid-implementation. It was not clearly scoring the successes that were hoped for, but it would be premature to call it a failure. Rashid is correct in any event that the Obama White House needs to pay attention to the difference between strictly military and political policy; the former has been dominant, and the later may require some changes.

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