Afghanistan: Suicide Bomber Attack; Taliban Exhibits Improved Tactics

Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009; 12:15 PM

A suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside a mosque Wednesday near the Afghan capital, killing the country's second-highest ranking intelligence official along with at least 22 other people, Afghan officials said. A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Taliban has become a much more potent adversary in Afghanistan by improving its own tactics and finding gaps in the U.S. military playbook, according to senior American military officials who acknowledged that the enemy's resurgence this year has taken them by surprise.

Washington Post staff writer Karen DeYoung was online Wednesday, Sept. 2, at 12:15 p.m. ET to discuss the attack and the revitalized Taliban.


Fahim: What do you know about this Fahim character in Afghanistan and why Karzai picked him to be defense chief and then his VP running mate? I read an article by a former NSC staffer that seriously questioned his loyalties and our reliance upon him for building up Afghan forces to take over for us?

The Real Winner of Afghanistan's Election (Foreign Policy, Aug. 31)

Karen DeYoung: Fahim is a Tajik, former military commander of the Northern Alliance--the alliance of militias that fought against the Taliban and worked with U.S. forces in 2001 to drive them from power. He was Karzai's first vice president before becoming defense minister. U.S. and NATO officials refer to him as a warlord--probably the most powerful in the country--because his original militia remains largely intact, and he has balked at efforts to disarm the militias.


Karen DeYoung: Hello everybody. Glad to be here on short notice. We have few questions in the queue; don't know if that's because of the short notice, or everyone is riveted on health care debate or still at the beach. But will forge ahead and hope that some interest in the ongoing Afghan war surfaces.


Boston, Mass.: A few simple questions: What are our national interests in Afghanistan? (Keeping it from becoming an al-Qaeda base against us again?) Do we need to try protect the population to achieve our national interests? If we are defining success and supporting tactics beyond what is needed for our national interests and beyond what is likely achievable aren't we setting ourselves up for strategic failure? By adding even more troops (and doubling down this strategic path) are we increasing the scope of that strategic failure?

Karen DeYoung: A few questions, yes. But not so simple. Our national interest, as defined by President Obama, is to defeat and dismantle al Qaeda, and to prevent Afghanistan ever again becoming a place from which terrorists can plan and launch attacks against U.S. and its allies. The president's policy holds that this requires a three-pronged policy in Afghanistan: defeating the al-Qaeda-allied Taliban and building a viable Afghan economy and infrastructure so that Taliban blandishments of security and sustenance don't appeal to the population, and developing a functional and honest Afghan government. More troops would be to support the first leg, which as seen as a prerequisite for the second two.


Bridgewater, Mass.: We've been training an Afghan army for eight years now, and still they can't defend their own country? What are the problems -- people basically agree with the Taliban, they don't want to be associated with the occupiers, it's just going to take more money to train and equip more of them, ...?

Karen DeYoung: I don't think anyone would argue that the training program for Afghan National Security Forces (army and police) has gone swimmingly over the past years. Gen. James Jones, now Obama's national security advisor, authored a report on the ANSF early last year, published by the Atlantic Council, saying that it was largely a failure. One part of the new strategy is for the U.S. to take more responsibility for training--sending at least 4,000 troops of the 82nd Airborne to do it--and vastly increasing the size of the Afghan force (which was already scheduled to double in the next two years). But it's a long and difficult slog.


Boston, Mass.: When did this stop being the "good war"? I thought catching bin Laden was a big deal? Are people just fed up with war in general?

Karen DeYoung: I think the Obama administration is in a race against time. It was the "good war," compared to Iraq, and he could argue it wasn't going well because the Bush administration had starved it of resources and manpower. Now, he's increased both but the results aren't apparent. Question is whether he can get support to carry out his strategy, or whether impatience for results (and more bad news) substantially shift public and legislative support against him. But it's unquestionably "Obama's war" now, for better or worse.


Arlington, Va.: So what do you think? Any chance State cancels Armor Group's contract after the latest "security guys gone wild" incident?

Karen DeYoung: I think chances are excellent they're outta there. But doesn't solve the problem of massive use of contractors for what many in Congress call "inherently governmental" tasks. Another contractor will get the job--there just aren't enough government people to go around.


Cameron, N.C.: Are the comparisons to Viet Nam warranted or just scare tactics?

Karen DeYoung: Without going into it too deeply, the Vietnam comparison , I think, is more valid than the Iraq one. Largely rural country that we know little to nothing about, difficult terrain, indigenous enemy, hearts and mind struggle, etc. etc.


Silver Spring, Md.: "But will forge ahead and hope that some interest in the ongoing Afghan war surfaces." Interesting that you should phrase it this way. It seems a year ago many Americans (perhaps even a majority?) were calling for the U.S. to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan -- "War is not the Answer!". Now, nine months after "the Peace President" took office, troop levels in the region are INCREASING. Troop levels in Iraq are supposed to start declining next year. But of course, that is subject to change. And there's no clear exit strategy in Afghanistan. Strangely, there seems to be no opposition?

Karen DeYoung: The public support was there when Obama took office, and for his strategy when he announced it in March. But it's hard to ask for more time and resources when things aren't going well. People are looking for results and aren't interested in hearing that it will take more.


Washington, D.C.: I have never been a big believer in the "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" theory. Has the Taliban changed its stripes? It seems that before 9/11 the Taliban was at least a tolerable force in Afghanistan, what has changed so that now we must defeat them? They are not al-Qaeda in their anti-U.S. threat status. Just not liking us is one thing but actively acting on that is another. Wouldn't a weak Afghanistan without the Taliban be a better environment for al-Qaeda than a stronger Afghanistan with the Taliban?

Karen DeYoung: That is definitely an argument some are making now: that if our objective is to defeat and dismantle al-Qaeda, why should we be devoting so much effort and so many lives to Afghanistan? Why should we care if the Taliban run the place, as long as we can get rid of al-Qaeda...which, in any case, is mostly in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.


Napoleon, Ohio: Is there any way to tell how much disagreement there is within the military in regards to the current policies of the White House?

Karen DeYoung: The military was pretty unhappy with the Bush administration vis a vis Afghanistan: no real strategy, scant resources, etc. There is always some level of disagreement between individuals and service branches, and there is ongoing discussion about how many troops are needed, where they should go, what they should do, and how much may be too much. But there's a fairly high level of confidence in Gen. McChrystal, the commander, and everybody is waiting to see what Obama is going to do.


Seattle, Wash.: Why are we in Iraq and Afghanistan when al Qaeda still gets 95 percent of its funding and volunteers from Saudi Arabia and is based in Pakistan?

Couldn't we just drop four neutron bombs on Saudi Arabia instead?

Karen DeYoung: Not sure I agree with your numbers. Central Asia seems to be the growth patch for al Qaeda volunteers at the moment, and there are still lots of Arabs and others besides Saudis. Money also comes from various places, although predominately from individuals in Gulf states (not only Saudis). Having said that, your point is valid and has not escaped many experts and even internal policy discussions. The so-called "financial war on terror" is ongoing through the Treasury Department, but there has always been trouble getting the Saudis to cough up culprits and take action.


Wodbridge, Va: In the first 30 - 90 days after 9/11, the U.S. gave the Taliban the opportunity to continue their control of Afghanistan if they would only turn over bin Laden and his top lieutenants. The war started when they refused this offer. What would be the reaction to putting it back on the table? I.E. Gives us bin Laden and we will leave. The Afghan people would then be free to make their own choices regarding the Taliban.

Karen DeYoung: An attractive option to some, perhaps, but political and foreign policy suicide.


Bethesda, Md.: RE: - When did this stop being the "good war"? -

Almost the minute after Obama was elected.

Oh sure, some on the left -- mostly the anti-war pacifist fringe -- opposed the U.S. ever going into Afghanistan. The Cindy Sheehans and Michael Moores have been consistent to their credit. But I always suspected Obama campaigning on the theme of promising to remove our forces out of Iraq to instead go "get the people who really attacked us" and to snuff out the backward Taliban was all phony, rhetorical posturing from many liberals. Good campaign battering ram and diversionary tactic. Never something they ever really meant to do with any seriousness. I am MORE surprised the Obama administration went through all of the motions so far to actually pretend to do it. We'll start drawing down by the end of this year there. Care to comment?

Karen DeYoung: Most of the opposition was to Iraq. I don't see a drawdown this year. On the contrary.


Omaha, Neb.: How is Afghanistan today not like Vietnam in the early 60s? A corrupt central gov't, locals who hated the invaders, civil strife is rampant. Seriously, have we learned NOTHING from Vietnam?

Karen DeYoung: See above. There are some valid comparisons.


Karen DeYoung: Questions were slow in coming, and now that there are some remaining, it's time to go. Sorry for what I didn't get to, but hope to be back soon. The subject certainly isn't going to go away.


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