With Afghan drawdown looming, U.S. scales back ambitions

The war in Afghanistan began as the good war. Today it is the good-enough war.

In Kabul and Washington, the push is on to wind down a fight that on Friday will mark its 10th anniversary. U.S. officials, who are facing a future of fewer troops and less money for reconstruction, are narrowing their goals for the country. The constrained ambitions come amid pressure from the Obama administration to scale back the U.S. commitment at a time of flagging public support.

In southern Afghanistan, American commanders are focused on holding territory taken from the Taliban over the past two fighting seasons. In the Afghan capital, U.S. officials are working to restart peace and reconciliation talks that appear to be going nowhere. And in the east, where violence is up slightly over last year and plans for U.S. reinforcements were scuttled this spring, military commanders are pressing new offensives before troop levels begin to fall. That is where American commanders face their most daunting challenge.

“Our sense of urgency is driven by time and a recognition that we will never have more forces on the ground than we do right now,” said Maj. Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, the U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan.

U.S. troop levels, which are at their peak of about 98,000, will shrink by about 30,000 by summer. The coming cuts have led senior military officials to press forward with large-scale operations designed to take on key insurgent strongholds before troop levels decline, U.S. military officials said.

Many of those assaults have focused on shoring up security along the southern approaches to Kabul, where the Haqqani network has sought to expand its presence. The insurgent group has been responsible for many high-profile attacks in the capital.

The military had plans this year to shift some combat forces from the south to the east to help in the battle against Haqqani strongholds, but those plans were shelved because commanders were worried that if they thinned out forces in the south too quickly, they would give up hard-won gains there. “You’ve ended up with about two-thirds of the planned-for uses of the surge,” said a U.S. official in Afghanistan, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the state of the war candidly.

The inability to increase the size of the U.S. force in the east, currently about 30,000 troops, has compelled commanders to make tough choices. They have identified 45 of 160 districts as “key terrain districts” where security and governance must take hold. To further focus limited resources, they have designated 21 of the 45 as “priority” districts.

“If we stabilize the 45 key terrain districts, that directly affects 80 percent of the 7.5 million people in regional command east,” Allyn said.

The focus has meant forgoing some plans that may have made sense a few years earlier. In Paktika province, long a stronghold of the Haqqani network, military commanders recently held off building a string of outposts to help Afghan police forces hold an area where they had crumbled in the past.

U.S. officials focusing on reconstruction are also scaling back goals and expectations. In Konar province, a restive area along the Pakistani border, money that went toward paying Afghan elders $120 monthly stipends to sit on district councils, known as shuras, was eliminated. About half of the elders are expected to stay with the quasi-official bodies, which play key roles in areas such as local dispute resolution.

“It remains to be seen if they will continue to be effective,” said a U.S. official in eastern Afghanistan who follows the program. “We have dramatically reduced expectations of what we can accomplish here.”

Despite the problems, U.S. commanders point to signs of progress. There are new indications that the Taliban is having a harder time recruiting fighters locally. In two districts of Ghazni province where U.S. forces have fought tough battles, as many as 55 percent of insurgents who were captured or killed had come from outside the region to fight. Many of the fighters were drawn from the “vast Pashtun sea” that straddles both sides of the border with Pakistan, a senior U.S. military official said.

Some commanders point to the influx of foreign fighters as a sign that Afghans are ready to seek peace. “What we can definitively state is that the population is tired of the fighting,” said Allyn, the top commander in the east.

Others worry that the supply of young fighters from Pakistan could be inexhaustible. “They are like bees,” one U.S. official said. “How many do you have to kill to get them all?”

Dissatisfaction with Kabul

U.S. and Afghan forces have made their biggest gains over the past year in southern Afghanistan. Violence levels have fallen dramatically in the wake of advances by U.S. troops, and the Afghan army and police have performed better than expected in many of these areas.

“Their efforts have seized the initiative from the Taliban, and they will not regain it,” Lt. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the No. 2 commander in Afghanistan, said at a ceremony in Kandahar province last week.

The concern, even in the south, is that the military gains against the Taliban have not led to widespread improvements in the performance of the Kabul government or a reduction in the sort of corruption that drives Afghans to support the insurgency.

“If we continue to draw down forces at pace while such public and systemic corruption is left unchecked . . . we risk leaving behind a government in which we cannot reasonably expect Afghans to have faith,” Adm. Mike Mullen said late last month before stepping down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In recent months, U.S. efforts to confront Afghan corruption have stumbled or been scaled back. A turning point came in the spring, when Afghan investigators, working with Western advisers, arrested an aide to President Hamid Karzai on allegations of bribery. Karzai intervened to spring the aide from prison on the day of the arrest, and the political firestorm led to a deep discord in U.S.-Afghan relations. Karzai later compared the American advisers’ actions to detentions carried out during the Soviet occupation.

Since then, prosecutions of corrupt officials have been almost nonexistent. “How many major cases brought to the attorney general have been resolved? It is a fairly depressing number,” the senior military official said.

Kabul’s unwillingness to weed out incompetent leaders also has disappointed U.S. officials. In one key eastern province, the Americans have been pressing for almost a year to replace the governor, U.S. officials said.

“Karzai has not supported state institution building and instead tried to balance power brokers, creating his own [power] base,” one former U.S. official said.

In areas where there are strong provincial and district governors, such as Helmand province, U.S. officials said, the Taliban losses have been most sweeping and the gains seem most certain to hold. Another bright spot has been an effort, led by U.S. Special Forces troops, to work with elders to build village police forces. About 7,500 Afghans participate in the program, and Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has said that he hopes to double the size of the program to 15,000.

Setbacks to peace talks

The Americans’ best hope for a resolution to the conflict, a peace deal with one or more of the key insurgent groups, has been plagued by setbacks in recent months. The outreach sometimes has ended in calamity and sometimes in farce.

Last fall, a shopkeeper from the Pakistani city of Quetta embarrassed the government by passing himself off as one of the Taliban’s most senior commanders. The imposter was flown to Kabul on a NATO jet and ushered into the presidential palace to meet Karzai.

Earlier this year, a representative of Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, Tayyab Agha, met with State Department officials in Germany and Qatar but pulled out when news of those liaisons was made public. Last month, another promising Taliban contact deceived his hosts and blew himself up while hugging former Afghan president and peace negotiator Burhannudin Rabbani, killing him.

“That was the last nail in the coffin for peace with the Taliban,” said Ahmed Wali Massoud, an opposition leader from northern Afghanistan who is against negotiating with insurgents. “The policy has failed.”

Both American and Afghan officials still acknowledge the need to jump-start serious discussions about peace. They now suggest that they must engage Pakistan’s government more directly, in the hope that Islamabad can persuade insurgents to come to the bargaining table. But others worry that the United States’ desire to extricate itself makes it more likely that the Pakistanis will stand pat.

“At the end of the day, there is going to have to be some political resolution of the insurgency,” said another senior U.S. official in Afghanistan. “We’re not anywhere near that now. But we can’t give up the effort.”

Partlow reported from Kabul. Staff writer Kevin Sieff contributed to this report.

Joshua Partlow is The Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and as a correspondent in Brazil and Iraq.
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