That Other Failed War

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, October 9, 2008; 12:37 PM

With less than four months left in their tenure, White House aides are scrambling to come up with some sort of winning strategy for Afghanistan, the long-eclipsed war that's looking increasingly like another major debacle for President Bush's legacy.

There's no question Afghanistan demands a new approach. Experts have been saying that for months if not years. But the White House's new sense of urgency may have more to do with trying to insulate Bush from history's verdict that he let Afghanistan slip through his fingers.

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "The White House has launched an urgent review of Afghanistan policy, fast-tracked for completion in the next several weeks, amid growing concern that the administration lacks a comprehensive strategy for the foundering war there and as intelligence officials warn of a rapidly worsening situation on the ground.

"Underlying the deliberations is a nearly completed National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan and the Pakistan-based extremists fighting there. Analysts have concluded that reconstituted elements of al-Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban are collaborating with an expanding network of militant groups, making the counterinsurgency war infinitely more complicated.

"As the U.S. presidential election approaches, senior officials have expressed worry that the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is so tenuous that it may fall apart while a new set of U.S. policymakers settles in. Others believe a more comprehensive, airtight road map for the way ahead would limit the new president's options."

DeYoung also notes: "Alarms were first sounded early this year, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned from a trip to Afghanistan in early February -- her first in two years -- convinced that the war there was heading downhill. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates shared her pessimism, telling Congress that same week that Taliban insurgents had adopted more dangerous tactics, that the U.S.-led military coalition was disorganized, and that international development efforts were failing because 'there is no overarching strategy.'

"But seven months would pass before the administration, distracted by issues as serious as the Iraq war and as far afield as the Olympics, was seized with the urgency to put a new strategy in place."

Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt write in the New York Times: "A draft report by American intelligence agencies concludes that Afghanistan is in a 'downward spiral' and casts serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise in the Taliban's influence there, according to American officials familiar with the document. . . .

"The report, a nearly completed version of a National Intelligence Estimate, is set to be finished after the November elections and will be the most comprehensive American assessment in years on the situation in Afghanistan. Its conclusions represent a harsh verdict on decision-making in the Bush administration, which in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made Afghanistan the central focus of a global campaign against terrorism. . . .

"Inside the government, reports issued by the Central Intelligence Agency for more than two years have chronicled the worsening violence and rampant corruption inside Afghanistan, and some in the agency say they believe that it has taken the White House too long to respond to the warnings."

All this comes, Mazzetti and Schmitt point out, as Afghanistan has "become an issue in the presidential campaign, along with questions about whether the White House emphasis in recent years on the war in Iraq has been misplaced."

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama "has accused the White House of paying too little attention to Afghanistan as it poured the vast bulk of American military resources into the war in Iraq, while [Republican candidate John] McCain has defended the administration's decision, saying that Iraq remains the more important front in the battle against terrorism. . . .

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