In Afghanistan, for Better or for Worse

By Peter Baker
Monday, February 11, 2008

P resident Bush famously doesn't like long memos. So if retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones hoped to get Bush's attention with the report he produced on Afghanistan, he was clever enough to be blunt from the start. "Make no mistake," the report says in its first line. "NATO is not winning in Afghanistan."

If Bush read that far into the report, he evidently disagrees. During his speech Friday to the Conservative Political Action Conference, the president offered a far rosier view of the situation in Afghanistan than even his own top military and civilian advisers hold. "The Taliban, al-Qaeda and their allies are on the run," Bush declared to the audience of supporters.

Lest he be accused of making a "last throes" type of statement, much as Vice President Cheney once declared of the insurgents in Iraq, Bush went on to note that "Afghanistan has a long road ahead." But that was the end of the pessimism for him. The rest of his assessment was upbeat. Democracy is on the march, he reported. Roads and bridges are being built. Girls are going to school. No mention of his decision to send 3,200 more Marines because of spiking violence.

Military officials reported that there were more U.S. casualties in 2007 than any year since the 2001 operation to push the Taliban out of power. Today, according to most assessments, the Taliban and its allies do not control territory but operate with impunity from bases in Pakistan. U.S. forces beat the Taliban in any direct engagement but have been unable to defeat them strategically. Reconstruction remains spotty and opium production is increasingly a problem.

"We are seeing only mixed progress," Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last week. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates agreed. "I would say that while we have been successful militarily, that the other aspects of development in Afghanistan have not proceeded as well," he told the same hearing.

Jones, the former NATO commander, does not couch his judgment. In a pair of reports that he oversaw, he made clear he views the situation in dire terms. One of them described "a stalemate of sorts" in which the Taliban cannot beat U.S. and NATO forces but "neither can our forces eliminate the Taliban by military means as long as they have sanctuary in Pakistan."

The report goes on to say that "urgent changes are required now to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failing or failed state."

A senior administration official briefing reporters hours after Bush's speech said the president was right in that the Taliban is not winning. "Tactically, on the security front, I'd say we're winning," the official said. "The challenge with Afghanistan is, that's not good enough. It's on some of the other elements of the mission that we're not doing well."

The Best Guess

Bush hates it when people try to figure out his complex relationship with his father and how it influences the decisions he makes as president. "Shallow psychobabble," he scoffed to Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday" yesterday. "A bunch of people obviously got too much time on their hands."

And yet the president can't help providing more to babble about. Last week during his CPAC speech, he made a joking reference to his father that could be read as pretty cutting. "I appreciate the fact you invited Vice President Cheney here," the president told the activists. "He is the best vice president in history." After the applause died down, he added slyly, "Mother may have a different opinion. But don't tell her I said this, but my opinion is the one that counts."

George H.W. Bush, of course, served as vice president for eight years. This is hardly the first time the current president has seemed to slight his father's presidency. In private, he has made clear he wanted to do things differently than his father, whether it came to foreign affairs or winning reelection. Publicly, he identified himself politically more readily with Ronald Reagan than his father. At one point, asked by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward if he turned to his father for advice on Iraq, he answered, "There is a higher father that I appeal to."

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