Reasons to be anxious about Afghanistan

By David Ignatius
Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Obama administration's strategy for Afghanistan is to gradually transfer responsibility to the Afghans, starting in July 2011. But on the eve of President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington, there's little evidence so far to demonstrate that this transfer process will actually work.

The much-touted offensive in Marja in Helmand province in February succeeded in clearing that rural area temporarily of Taliban insurgents, at least by day. But plans for the Afghans to provide more security and better governance there are off to a shaky start, officials at the State Department and Pentagon say.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal's boast in February that "We've got a government in a box, ready to roll in" to Marja now sounds wildly over-optimistic. A senior military official concedes that this phrase "created an expectation of rapidity and efficiency that doesn't exist now."

The official Pentagon line, after a White House review Thursday, is that there's "slow but steady progress" in Afghanistan. But the senior military official cautions that 90 days after the offensive, "Marja is a mixed bag," with parts of the area still controlled by the Taliban and Afghan government performance spotty. A top State Department official agrees: "Transfer is not happening" in Marja.

Kandahar, the next big test of the U.S. strategy, will be even harder. The plan is to work with the existing power structure inside the city, even as U.S. troops pound Taliban strongholds to the west and south. But a senior administration official cautions that the Kandahar strategy is "still a work in progress." He explains: "We're still working our way through how much you can salvage [in the local government] and how much you have to rebuild."

Karzai's visit this week will push U.S. and Afghan officials to focus on these hard questions about the war. The goal is to signal a "strong, deep and broad partnership" between the two countries, which will give Karzai some political capital back home, according to a top Afghan adviser. The senior administration official agrees that this week should "solidify our partnership with Karzai."

But Karzai himself is a symbol of U.S. worries about the feasibility of transferring governance and security to the Afghans. Karzai's anti-U.S. diatribes of a month ago have been papered over, but not the concerns about whether he can provide strong leadership in an Afghanistan where the central government and Karzai's own family are widely seen as weak, corrupt and out of touch.

Karzai's arrival also highlights one of the trickiest issues in the Afghanistan strategy -- namely, the process of reconciliation with the Taliban that could lead to an eventual settlement. Karzai plans to hold a "peace jirga" and a Kabul conference this summer to encourage outreach. U.S. officials will probe this week about whom he plans to include in this dialogue and what the agenda will be.

If Afghanistan's strategy for reconciliation is fuzzy, the Obama administration's is nonexistent, at least publicly. "We don't have a plan yet," worries the senior military official. The White House believes that while the administration has policy outlines on reconciliation, it must leave some flexibility for Karzai. "To be durable, this has to be an Afghan plan," stresses the senior administration official.

One big problem with framing a reconciliation strategy now is that U.S. officials want to bargain from a position of strength. "We aren't there yet," the senior military official says bluntly.

To make his visit productive, despite the uncertainties, Karzai sent as an advance emissary Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister and a rival in last year's presidential election. Ghani met last week with top administration officials and discussed practical measures to deal with governance and other problems.

Ghani has suggested early transfer of perhaps four of the country's 34 provinces. This could happen by December, when the administration plans a major policy review. Ghani has also argued that because of recent discoveries of copper, lithium and other strategic minerals, Afghanistan isn't the economic basket case it now appears. He's touting Chinese plans to invest in a big copper mine and in a new railway as potential economic "game changers."

The Obama administration has just over a year to make the kind of progress in Afghanistan that would provide a political rationale for staying awhile longer. The public will hear upbeat talk this week from Karzai and President Obama, but it shouldn't disguise the underlying anxiety on both sides that the feasibility of the U.S. strategy for this war has yet to be proved.

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