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A dubious battle for Afghan hearts and minds

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By David Ignatius
Sunday, September 12, 2010

Avisitor to U.S. military bases in Afghanistan sees lots of PowerPoint slides that purport to show progress is being made, despite setbacks. But two studies deepened my worries that the current strategy, without adjustments, will not achieve its goal of transferring responsibility to the Afghan government starting next July.

These reports are important because they go to the central premise -- namely, that Afghan security forces and governance institutions can be improved in time to make a gradual handover work. Looking at the studies, I scratch my head and wonder whether, as in the old joke about the Maine farmer who is asked for directions, the correct answer about our ambitious Afghanistan itinerary may be: "You can't get there from here." If that's so -- if there are basic weaknesses in plans for governance and training -- then President Obama and his commanders should make adjustments before it's too late.

Let's start with governance: It was disturbing, to put it mildly, to watch President Hamid Karzai in Kabul baldly dismissing corruption allegations on the very day depositors were fleeing a partly family-owned bank with a history of dubious loans. His critics were bandits, Karzai said indignantly, and he likened the arrest of an allegedly corrupt palace official to "Soviet" tactics.

I don't remember even Presidents Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Van Thieu in South Vietnam being quite so cavalier about criticism. But such is the power of weakness: Afghanistan is so precarious that Karzai apparently assumes the United States has no alternative but to stick with him.

One study, shared with the military, shows how our alliance with the Karzai government undermines efforts to stabilize Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the two key battlegrounds. The study summarized polling interviews done in June among 552 men in those two provinces by the International Council on Security and Development and its president, Norine MacDonald.

The numbers, while not strictly scientific, are a catalog of bad news: Seventy percent of those surveyed said that Afghan government officials in their area are making money from drug trafficking; 64 percent said that these local officials are linked to the insurgency; 74 percent worry about feeding their families.

Is the U.S.-led coalition helping fix these problems of bad governance? Not according to these residents of Helmand and Kandahar: 68 percent said that NATO forces aren't protecting the local population; 70 percent said that military operations in their area are bad for the Afghan people; in Marja, where the United States conducted its ballyhooed campaign in February to install "government in a box," a stunning 99 percent said that such military operations are bad.

Summary: The harder the U.S. military fights to shore up Karzai's government in these key areas of the south, the more unpopular it seems to be. This problem must be fixed, somehow. (I asked Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander, about this study; he said that he was aware of it but noted the small sample size.)

A second study highlighted the other big "tent pole" in the U.S. strategy -- the plan to rapidly create a 306,000-member Afghan national army and police. The numbers came from Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who recently took over the training mission in Kabul.

Caldwell noted that last September, at a time commanders were touting the training strategy, the Afghan army was shrinking because of attrition. Caldwell has raised the pay, especially for the notoriously corrupt police, so they now make roughly as much as Taliban fighters. Partly as a result, attrition fell among the so-called "ANCOP" national police from an annualized rate of about 100 percent last December to roughly 25 percent in March. But the rate bounced back to nearly 50 percent in July.

Attrition is so high, says Caldwell, partly because the operating tempo is so intense. It's a vicious cycle: The national police fight far from home, often in units that have been cobbled together; they get demoralized and quit; more recruits are rushed in to fill the gaps and sent off on faraway missions; they get frustrated and quit, and so on. Caldwell says he wants to "professionalize" the force, but in a country with more than 70 percent illiteracy, that's the work of a generation.

An interim review of the Afghanistan strategy is scheduled for December: The White House wants "fine-tuning, rather than changing the channel." Fair enough, so long as officials end up with a clear and pragmatic picture of where they're going.

"Hard is not hopeless," as Petraeus likes to say, but a strategy shouldn't be immovable, either.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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