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The race against Obama's deadline in Afghanistan

A Marine talks to youths during an operation in Helmand province in Afghanistan on Friday.
A Marine talks to youths during an operation in Helmand province in Afghanistan on Friday. (Kevin Frayer/associated Press)

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By David Ignatius
Sunday, December 20, 2009

MATA KHAN, AFGHANISTAN

Adm. Mike Mullen, the personification of American military power, is walking the streets of this dusty village in Paktika province when the deferential deputy governor, Qadir Gul Zadran, tells him: "We hope you stay here forever."

Sorry, responds the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but that's not going to happen. America is sending more troops to help boost security in places such as this Pashtun village south of Kabul, but they will begin leaving in 18 months. Asked later whether he had any worries about the new Afghanistan strategy, Mullen answers: "It's just the clock. Can we move as fast as we need to move?"

That ticking clock was Mullen's consistent companion as he traveled across Afghanistan last week to review implementation of President Obama's decision to send 30,000 more troops. He visited a half-dozen military outposts and at each stop repeated the same message: The new strategy can work, but the challenge is huge and the time is short.

Traveling with Mullen, I had a chance to see up close the opportunities and pitfalls of Obama's decision for a short-term escalation. The strongest impression was that the administration's plan to begin transferring responsibility to the Afghan army and police in July 2011 is overly optimistic. If all goes well, the Afghan security forces will be stronger by then, but they will still need a lot of American help.

Let's start with Obama's desire to rush in the 30,000 additional troops by next summer. It ain't likely to happen. Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the U.S. deputy commander, cautions that they may not all arrive until November. Mullen says that he's confident the first 16,000 will arrive by July, but he warned a meeting of logistical planners at Bagram: "I just hope you have a Plan B. Life doesn't turn out to be perfect."

The logistical buildup may be the most complicated part of the surge. To transport all those troops means, among other things, tripling the number of beds at a transit base in Kyrgyzstan, adding facilities at three airports in Afghanistan and constructing new quarters around the country that are solid but not too solid.

"We're not staying forever," Mullen admonished the logisticians. "Whatever we're building, I don't want to build it for 30 years."

Then there's the challenge of improving the Afghan security forces. Sometimes it has a make-believe quality: At a base near Gardez, Afghan officers are giving their own PowerPoint presentations and staffing a joint operations center with banks of computers and even a screen to display the camera feeds from U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles.

But the temptation to have the Afghans mimic the American military is a mistake. As Mullen told U.S. soldiers at a base north of Kandahar, the Afghans "need to take care of their security at a level they're capable of, which is 'good enough.' " And reaching even that middling level will take a while.

Another reality check here is the corruption of the Afghan government. When Mullen held a "shura" with tribal leaders in Kandahar, they all agreed this was the No. 1 problem. "Corruption in Afghan society is like cancer," said one bearded elder. "It has spread all over the body. It's that bad. We must bring them to justice." Mullen promised action, but that's complicated by the allegations that Kandahar's most notoriously corrupt figure is the brother of President Hamid Karzai.

"How much time do we have" to regain the trust of people in Kandahar, Mullen asked the elders. One cautioned that the fact that only half of those invited to the shura had come was a sign that "people have lost faith."

What's encouraging is that where the United States has added troops this year, security has improved sharply. We saw that most clearly in Nawa in Helmand province, where the Taliban's hold has been broken by a surge of Marines. The local governor, Abdul Manaf, welcomed Mullen with a toothy smile and a big embrace, gushing: "I wish I could put flowers on your shoulders."

Mullen was so impressed by the Nawa success story after an exuberant walk through the local market that he told the Marines: "Continue this focus on the Afghan people and I guarantee that this strategy will succeed."

But I asked the local commander of the Afghan army, Brig. Gen. Muhayadin Ghori, whether he would be ready to take responsibility for security in July 2011, as Obama's strategists hope. He answered: "We need more time."

davidignatius@washpost.com


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