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In Afghanistan, a waiting game to outlast the Obama administration

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Evidently Hamid Karzai did not get the memo on terminology. U.S. military commanders have stopped using the word "operation" to describe the drive, now delayed, against the Taliban in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city. This word connotes danger and stirs dread among the population, whose allegiance is the prize for which counterinsurgency is waged. But Afghanistan's president, speaking there on Sunday, anticipated a "purification operation," saying "this operation requires sacrifice."

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It has been four months since Gen. Stanley McChrystal said, in words that reflect the military's embrace of nation building, "We've got a government in a box, ready to roll in" to Marja. It took longer than expected to reach a more inconclusive outcome than expected in that town of about 80,000, which last month McChrystal called "a bleeding ulcer." Hence the delay from spring until autumn in tackling Kandahar, with its population of perhaps 800,000. It is, he says, "more important we get it right than we get it fast."

Fast, however, is U.S. policy. In his reverent new book, "The Promise: President Obama, Year One," Jonathan Alter reconstructs the administration's deliberations about Afghanistan in autumn 2009. Vice President Biden, walking with the president to the decisive meeting with Gen. David Petraeus and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was assured by Obama that the policy of beginning a significant withdrawal in 2011 was a direct presidential order. Alter reports that Obama, whose mantra for the military was "Do not occupy what you cannot transfer" -- what you cannot soon make Afghanistan's responsibility -- said to Petraeus, "I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?"

Petraeus: "Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame."

Obama: "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"

Petraeus: "Yes, sir, in agreement."

Mullen: "Yes, sir."

Perhaps, but Time magazine reports that NATO trainers say 90 percent of Afghan enlisted recruits cannot read a rifle instruction manual, ANA officers routinely steal enlistees' salaries, soldiers "sell off their own American-supplied boots, blankets and guns at the bazaar -- sometimes to the Taliban," and "recruits tend to go AWOL after their first leave, while one-quarter of those who stay in service are blitzed on hashish or heroin," according to an ANA survey.

Time says keeping the ANA functioning costs $6 billion a year. The Afghan government's tax revenue is $1 billion a year. Americans have provided $26 billion for Afghanistan's security forces, so far.

Biden told Alter: "In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it." Bet on this, too: The Taliban will increase the tempo of fighting between now and November, when the NATO meeting in Lisbon will assess the evidence of success in Afghanistan. It took 2,520 days for the war to take 500 American lives; it took 627 days for it to take the next 500.

The administration will review Afghanistan strategy in December, but last week Defense Secretary Robert Gates, defining success down, expressed the minimalist hope of "making some headway" by then. While the administration boasts of having a "boot on the neck" of BP, Britain wonders whether its severe budget crisis, which is aggravated by the evaporating value of its once largest corporation, should be ameliorated by withdrawing the 9,500 British troops in Afghanistan. Canadian and Dutch combat troops begin withdrawing this summer.

Perhaps it was coincidental that after several weeks of bad news from Afghanistan, on Monday there was good news, of sorts, about what Obama has previously called Afghanistan's "vast potential." The New York Times reported that "senior American government officials" say Afghanistan has "nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits," which might fundamentally alter the nation's economy "and perhaps the Afghan war itself."

This could be true only on the fanciful supposition that this wealth can be tapped in 13 months or, even more fancifully, that the war will grind on for many years, until the infrastructures of extraction industries are built in a nation whose current gross domestic product is $12 billion. This "stunning potential," in Petraeus's description of the minerals, will encourage the perception that the U.S. engagement there has something to do with economic aggrandizement, will aggravate Afghanistan's pandemic corruption and will intensify the Taliban's determination to prevail in a place where even good news has, like a scorpion, a sting in its tail.

georgewill@washpost.com



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