The Afghan roller coaster

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"THE CONDUCT of a counterinsurgency operation is a roller-coaster experience," Gen. David H. Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. That may be the one point about Afghanistan on which everyone can agree. Gen. Petraeus made the case that, six months after President Obama launched a new strategy, the "trajectory . . . has generally been upward." Senators from both parties responded by pointing out the evidence of a contrary momentum, including an erosion of initial gains in southern Afghanistan and what seems to be a malignant mistrust between the administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

In fact, the starting point for any assessment needs to be that it is too early to make a sound assessment; the administration's formal review is not due for another six months. It nevertheless is possible to identify a couple of budding problems that, if not corrected, could prove crippling.

One is the uncertainty created by President Obama's stipulation that U.S. troop withdrawals begin in July 2011 -- which seems to have caused many Afghans to conclude that American power and influence will quickly recede after the coming year. The second, related to the first, is the administration's lack of a clear definition of the political end-state it seeks -- other than a set of conditions that will allow U.S. troops to withdraw without handing a new sanctuary to al-Qaeda. That has led to confusion in civilian efforts and to frequently shifting objectives in key areas such as Kandahar, where Mr. Karzai's half brother, a corrupt power broker, has been treated variously as a valued partner, a potential military target and a necessary evil.

Both of these weaknesses have been compounded by differences within the administration, which appears not to have moved past its debates of last year over whether to apply to Afghanistan a version of the counterinsurgency strategy used in Iraq. At the Senate hearing, Gen. Petraeus described "comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency operations in key districts in Afghanistan," and Undersecretary of Defense Michele P. Flournoy said that "our goal . . . is to foster transparent, effective and accountable democratic governance." But some civilian officials at the White House insist that Mr. Obama has not embraced a counterinsurgency policy or the goal of Afghan democracy. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has frequently been at odds with the military command over how to pacify key districts.

Gen. Petraeus, who said "we have to be very careful with timelines," carefully described the July 2011 withdrawal date as "the point at which a process begins to transition security tasks to Afghan forces at a rate to be determined by conditions at the time." As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pointed out, that contrasts with the considerably less cautious statement of Vice President Biden, who told Newsweek's Jonathan Alter that "in July of 2011, you are going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it."

Mr. Karzai, who last week fired two cabinet ministers with close ties to the United States, seems to be betting on Mr. Biden rather than on Gen. Petraeus. His former intelligence minister told the New York Times that the Afghan president has written off the possibility of U.S. success and is positioning himself to make a deal with Pakistan and the Taliban. Whether or not that is true, it's clear that the confusion in U.S. policy is damaging the mission. Only one person can fix it -- and that is President Obama. It's time for him to make clear whether the United States is prepared to stay long enough to ensure a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.

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