National Security Team Delivers Grim Appraisal of Afghanistan War

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 9, 2009

MUNICH, Feb. 8 -- President Obama's national security team gave a dire assessment Sunday of the war in Afghanistan, with one official calling it a challenge "much tougher than Iraq" and others hinting that it could take years to turn around.

U.S. officials said more troops were urgently needed, both from America and its NATO allies, to counter the increasing strength of the Taliban and warlords opposed to the central government in Kabul. They also said new approaches were needed to untangle an inefficient and conflicting array of civilian-aid programs that have wasted billions of dollars.

"NATO's future is on the line here," Richard C. Holbrooke, the State Department's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told attendees at an international security conference here. "It's going to be a long, difficult struggle. . . . In my view, it's going to be much tougher than Iraq."

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, said the war in Afghanistan "has deteriorated markedly in the past two years" and warned of a "downward spiral of security."

In addition to more combat troops, Petraeus called for "a surge in civilian capacity" to help rebuild villages, train local police forces, tackle corruption in the Afghan government and reduce the country's thriving opium trade. He also suggested that the odds of success were low, given that foreign military powers have historically met with defeat in Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan has been known over the years as the graveyard of empires," he said. "We cannot take that history lightly."

The White House is conducting a strategic review of the war in Afghanistan and says it will unveil the results before NATO holds a 60th-anniversary summit in early April.

Obama administration officials have said they expect to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total U.S. deployment there to about 66,000. U.S. allies have a combined 32,000 troops in Afghanistan operating under NATO command. NATO officials have pressed European members of the alliance to send more, but few countries have been willing.

Germany, which has 3,500 troops in Afghanistan, the third most of any country, has questioned the need for more combat forces. Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said more attention should be paid to training Afghan forces and to reconstruction projects.

"We won't win with military alone," he said at the conference. "There will be no development without security. But without development, we won't have security, either."

The debate over troops has led to a split within NATO. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO's secretary general, told conference attendees on Saturday that European members of the alliance needed to do more of the "heavy lifting" in Afghanistan.

British Defense Secretary John Hutton openly disagreed with his German counterpart, saying the need for more combat troops was the highest priority in Afghanistan. Reconstruction efforts, he said, would fail if the Taliban remains strong.

"We kid ourselves if we imagine that other contributions right now are of the same value, because they're not," he said. Britain has 8,900 troops in Afghanistan and has said it will probably send more.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said his country had made large strides since the U.S.-led military invasion in 2001. He said Afghanistan was home to a thriving free press, 17 universities, and schools for thousands of girls who had been barred by the Taliban from receiving an education. In 2001, he said, Afghanistan had no paved roads; now it has 2,500 miles of new highways.

U.S. officials said one of the thorniest problems in Afghanistan is its flourishing drug trade, which accounts for an estimated 90 percent of the world's heroin supply. But Karzai, who faces reelection in August, dismissed portrayals of Afghanistan as being run by drug barons.

"Yes, we produce poppies. Yes, we are insecure because of that," he said. "Are we a 'narco-state,' as we've been called the past few years? No, we are not."

Karzai said the only way to bring stability to Afghanistan is to eventually negotiate a deal with the Taliban. He also blamed Afghanistan's slow recovery on a lack of coordination among donor countries.

U.S. and European officials agreed that poor coordination is a major obstacle. "I've never seen anything remotely resembling the mess we've inherited," Holbrooke said.

But some officials suggested the Afghan government was also responsible.

Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, cited a fumbled attempt by the United Nations last year to name Paddy Ashdown, a British diplomat, as the overseer of international aid projects in Afghanistan. Ashdown's appointment was torpedoed by Karzai, who saw it as an infringement on Afghanistan's sovereignty.

Holbrooke replied that the Obama administration would revisit the idea of a development czar with Afghan officials. "The Paddy Ashdown fiasco -- and there's no other word for it -- really set back the international community."

Last week, in an open letter to Holbrooke published in the Times of London, Ashdown expressed some sympathy for "poor President Karzai" and said NATO members were chasing different goals in Afghanistan, depending on where their forces operate.

"The British think Afghanistan is Helmand, the Canadians think it's Kandahar, the Dutch think it's Uruzgan, the Germans think it's the Panjshir valley and the U.S. thinks it's chasing Osama bin Laden." He added, "Someone needs to bash heads together out there and if anyone can, you can."

Also Sunday, Vice President Biden held talks in Munich with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, a day after Biden said the White House wanted to "press the reset button" in its relations with the Kremlin. Ivanov praised Biden's speech, telling reporters that it was "very positive," and adding: "It is obvious the new U.S. administration has a very strong desire to change."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company