A surge of problems in Afghanistan

U.S. Marines move the remains of Lance Cpl. Michael Plank, killed last week in Afghanistan, to a mortuary transfer vehicle at Dover Air Force Base.
U.S. Marines move the remains of Lance Cpl. Michael Plank, killed last week in Afghanistan, to a mortuary transfer vehicle at Dover Air Force Base. (Alex Wong/getty Images)
By Jackson Diehl
Monday, June 14, 2010

Bad news from Afghanistan came in a steady stream last week, filling the back end of newscasts preoccupied with the gulf oil spill and primary elections. At least 23 NATO soldiers were killed; a U.S. helicopter was shot down; a suicide bomber killed dozens at a Kandahar wedding.

It is the good fortune of the Obama administration that these stories aren't getting much attention. The White House hasn't had to do much defending of its Afghan policy since President Obama announced it in December. While that's a welcome change from the poisonous polarization of the Bush-era Iraq debate, it is also lamentable in one important way: Not many people are noticing the growing problems in the president's surge strategy.

The biggest surprise is not the increasing casualties, which had to be expected with the arrival of summer and U.S. reinforcements in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. The more unexpected -- and avoidable -- setbacks were broadcast in three off-the-battlefield announcements last week.

First was the dismissal by President Hamid Karzai of two of the three ministers in his cabinet most closely allied with the United States: Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh. Next was the revelation by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, at a NATO conference in Brussels, that the alliance is still short of 450 trainers for the vital mission of expanding the Afghan army -- without which there will be no exit strategy.

Finally came the concession by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, at that same NATO conference that the much-anticipated campaign to secure Kandahar, the homeland of both the Taliban and the Karzai family, will begin later and proceed more slowly than planned, because of what he described as difficulty in winning local support.

What these fragments of news revealed is that three disabilities that have hobbled Obama's surge all along not only remain unfixed but seem to be getting worse. One is the failure of European governments to follow through on pledges to contribute in crucial areas such as training. Gates also said that McChrystal hadn't figured out how to replace Canadian and Dutch combat troops that are withdrawing from Afghanistan this summer.

A second is the divergence between U.S. interests and those of Karzai, despite a make-up session between the two governments last month in Washington. The Afghan leader had reasons to fire the two pro-American ministers, including their resistance to negotiations with the Taliban. But U.S. sources said he had been gunning for the two men, along with Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, ever since Washington insisted they be included in his cabinet after his reelection last year. Karzai seems determined to minimize American influence.

Most seriously, McChrystal's announcement reflected the continued absence in the U.S. command of a clear and coherent plan for pacifying southern Afghanistan -- one that seamlessly blends civilian and military initiatives. A first effort, in the Helmand town of Marja, has been faltering, in part because of a failure to fill the governance gap left when the Taliban was driven out.

In Kandahar, the U.S. command may be suffering from a failure of nerve. It has stepped back from an initial push to challenge the entrenched and corrupt local power structure headed by Karzai's half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. It has decided not to deploy U.S. troops in the city itself, other than military police working with Afghans. It has not moved to disarm, or even to cut off the Western funding of local militias -- some of them controlled by the Karzai family. The result is that U.S. forces are seen by many Afghans as merely reinforcing what amounts to a local mafia that is not necessarily preferable to the Taliban.

Hanging over all these complexities, and driving some of them, is Obama's imposition of a timeline on the Afghan surge: first a review of its progress this December, followed by the beginning of troop withdrawals in July 2011. The perception that the clock is ticking on the U.S. mission pushes Karzai toward building and defending his own family network, and favoring aides who can talk to Pakistan -- and maybe the Taliban -- over those close to the United States. It forces McChrystal to focus on producing easier and positive-looking results in the next few months, rather than committing to harder and longer-term solutions. It fuels continuing acrimony among military commanders, who believe the timetable is folly, and State Department and White House civilians, who regard it as the key to Obama's policy.

None of this means the war is lost. Thanks to Obama's commitment of 30,000 more troops and billions in economic aid, success remains entirely possible. But as the summer comes on, and Washington occupies itself with other issues, the trend lines in Afghanistan do not look good.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company