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For Obama, Three Time Bombs to Defuse in Afghanistan

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By Jackson Diehl
Sunday, March 29, 2009

Three time bombs are buried within the new and ambitious strategy for Afghanistan that President Obama unveiled Friday. Their detonation -- which would cripple the international mission to stabilize the country and perhaps cripple Obama's presidency -- is not inevitable. But defusing them will take an exceptional performance by U.S. military commanders and diplomats, some skillful politicking by the president -- and maybe a little of the unexpected good fortune that blessed the U.S. surge in Iraq.

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The first fuse is burning down toward Aug. 20, less than five months from now. On that day, Afghanistan is due to hold a presidential election whose outcome and perceived fairness may determine whether most Afghans continue to view U.S. and NATO forces as friendly. By then, too, the 17,000 additional Marines and Army troops authorized by Obama last month should be deployed in the two southern Afghan provinces, Helmand and Kandahar, where the Taliban is strongest, along with scores of new American civilian advisers.

This first test is twofold: Can the new U.S. forces clear the enemy from the large areas near the border with Pakistan where they now rule with near impunity -- something that inevitably will mean a spike in violence -- without appearing to use disproportionate force? And will Afghans be secure enough to cast ballots in an election in which they will be offered alternatives to incumbent President Hamid Karzai, with the assurance that their votes will be fairly counted?

U.S. commanders are pretty confident they can pass the military test, in part because for the first time in the seven-year war they can mass enough forces to overwhelm the Taliban without heavy reliance on air power, which causes 60 percent of civilian casualties. The election will be trickier. Karzai's government is perceived as feckless and corrupt by much of the Afghan population, and his relations with the United States have deteriorated sharply in the past year. Yet, in part because of a lack of strong challengers, he appears likely to win reelection. If the vote seems rigged, or if Karzai wins a new mandate without offering a credible promise of improvement, Afghans may irrevocably sour both on the central government and its foreign sponsors.

"This election has to be viewed as free and fair," said one U.S. military officer in Kabul. "And there has to be some discussion of corruption by Karzai so that in the first 100 days after the election there can be some visible action taken."

The second time bomb is set for the summer of 2010, when a war that is now regarded in Washington as jointly owned by the Bush and Obama administrations will have become Obama's alone -- for better or worse. The estimation in Kabul is that Americans and Afghans will tolerate relatively heavy fighting and casualties during this year's warm-weather "fighting season" in the hope that the fresh troops and new strategy will reverse the war's momentum. "But if we get to the next campaign season and we are getting the same results," worries one senior U.S. official, "we are going to lose public support."

The timeline is daunting because the immense and complex effort that will be needed to pacify Afghanistan's most troubled areas -- comprising military operations, new aid programs, governmental reform and a major new attempt to reduce Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan -- will take at least three to five years to pay off, by U.S. and NATO estimates.

That means Obama will have to stand up to the inevitable dissenters from both parties who will want to pull the plug on the counterinsurgency campaign before it has had a chance to work. These may include powerful officials in his own administration: Vice President Biden is among those who have been doubtful about making a major commitment to Afghan nation-building.

That brings up the third and longest-fused bomb. So far the international coalition is succeeding in reconstructing only one Afghan institution: the national army. Since 2007, it has been growing at a formidable pace: 7,000 new soldiers at a time are being drilled at the principal training base in Kabul. The best of Afghanistan's high school graduates are being siphoned off for officer training and a new four-year military academy modeled on West Point. Polls show the army is the most popular institution in the country. "The army," says proud Defense Minister Rahim Wardak, "is the physical manifestation of a new Afghanistan."

That's good -- only there has been no corresponding effort to build the capacity of the Afghan government and judiciary. An attempt to rebuild the police is just gaining speed after several false starts. The new strategy envisions a doubling of the U.S. Embassy staff and a major effort to strengthen civilian institutions. But, for the moment, Afghanistan is emerging as a country with a U.S.-trained army that will tower over all other institutions -- with potential consequences that can easily be seen in the history of American-trained armies in Latin America.

"People here know how to solve every problem in the world except the problem of governance -- but that is the one that matters most," says a Kabul-based diplomat. "Security we can do. Development we can do. It's that last piece -- the knitting of the country together -- that is going to be the hardest." Yet if it's not done, no success in Afghanistan will be sustainable.


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