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Obama’s Afghanistan Strategy Increasingly Under Siege

Inter Press Service

Monday’s release by WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of classified documents detailing the travails of the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s secret support for the Taliban from 2004 through 2009 comes amid a growing crisis of confidence here in the nearly nine-year-old war.

Coming on top of the steady increase in U.S. and NATO casualties in Afghanistan – July may yet exceed June as the highest monthly death toll for U.S. and NATO forces since the war began in late 2001 – the unprecedented leak can only add to the pessimism that has spread from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party to the heart of the foreign policy establishment, and even to a growing number of Republicans.

What hope was generated by President Barack Obama’s appointment last month of Gen. David Petraeus, whose counter-insurgency (COIN) tactics are widely credited with curbing Iraq’s rapid descent into all-out civil war three years ago, to command U.S. forces in Afghanistan has largely dissipated as a result of the steady flow of bad news – of which the Wikileaks document dump and the weekend capture by the Taliban of two U.S. seamen in a remote part of the country were only the latest examples.

Even before the latest events, key figures in the foreign policy elite were breaking with the prevailing consensus of just a few months ago: that Obama’s strategy of combining classic COIN military tactics – notably, prioritising the protection of the population – with building the capacity and extending the reach of the central government through a “civilian surge” could indeed reverse the Taliban’s momentum and force them to sue for peace.

In one widely noted column published by ‘Politico’ in mid- July, Robert Blackwill, a senior national security official in the administrations of both George H.W. and George W. Bush, called for “partitioning” Afghanistan between the Taliban’s stronghold of the mostly Pashtun south, and the multi-ethnic northern and western parts of the country where the U.S. and like-minded nations would continue to base a sizeable force.

“Such a de facto partition would be a profoundly disappointing outcome to America’s 10 years in Afghanistan,” wrote Blackwill, who dismissed concerns that such a move risked creating a “Pashtunistan” that could threaten the territorial integrity of Pakistan, in another column in the ‘Financial Times’ last week. “But, regrettably, it is now the best that can be realistically and responsibly achieved.”

At the same time, Richard Haass – like Blackwill, a key official in both Bush administrations and president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations for most of the past decade – offered a variation of that stratagem which he called “decentralisation”, in last week’s ‘Newsweek’ cover story, entitled “We’re Not Winning. It’s Not Worth It.”

Under Haass’s vision, Washington would reduce its efforts to build up the central government and the Afghan army and security forces. Instead, it would provide “arms and training to those local Afghan leaders throughout the country who reject Al Qaeda and who do not seek to undermine Pakistan,” including Taliban leaders willing to accept those conditions, while maintaining sufficient U.S. forces at the ready to enforce them.

While fighting would likely continue in Afghanistan for years, Washington could reduce its troops levels there significantly, according to Haass.

While Haass has for some time been sceptical of Obama’s nation-building strategy in Afghanistan, other influential supporters of the effort are also calling for major adjustments in policy.

In the ‘New Republic,’ Steve Coll, a veteran regional expert who also serves as president of the New America Foundation, implicitly took Haass and Blackwill to task, suggesting that their approach would essentially abandon the south to the Taliban and the rest of the country to local warlords.

Instead, he called for Washington to follow the strategy followed by the last Communist ruler of Afghanistan, Najibullah, after the Soviet collapse when he sought – albeit unsuccessfully – to forge the broadest possible alliance against the Islamist mujahdin insurgency.

Washington must now – hopefully, with President Hamid Karzai’s cooperation – work to reinforce “a national consensus to prevent the Taliban or any other armed faction from seizing power as international troops gradually pull back from direct combat&,” according to Coll, who argued that, under current circumstances, “the Afghan body politic is in increasing danger of fissuring,” very possibly into civil war as U.S. and NATO forces withdraw.

While the urgency with which these alternative strategies are being floated reflects the foreign policy elite’s disunity over what is to be done, recent polls suggest that public confidence in the current strategy is in steady decline.

Growing – although hardly overwhelming – majorities believe that the Afghan war, currently funded at about 100 billion dollars a year and which last month took the lives of 102 NATO soldiers, has not been worth the cost. Much larger majorities believe the war is either stalemated or being lost.

Public disillusionment is increasingly reflected in Congress where a 37 billion dollar emergency war bill has been held up for nearly a month amid doubts about U.S. strategy, doubts that even Petraeus appears unable to dispel.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, whose loyalty to Obama’s foreign policy in general and Afghanistan strategy, in particular, has been much appreciated by the White House, has become increasingly uneasy in recent weeks.

He will hold hearings this week on the administration’s policy toward possible negotiations between Karzai and the Taliban, one of the areas on which the administration – and its NATO allies – appear to be in considerable disarray.

That unease was evident Monday after the WikiLeaks release.

“However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Kerry said in a prepared statement. “Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent.”

The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar, who supported Obama’s decision last November to increase U.S. troops levels to 100,000 by this fall, has also expressed growing doubts about where the strategy is headed. He warned last week that Washington could continue “spending billions of dollars each year without ever reaching a satisfying conclusion”.

And while most Republicans remain hawkish on Afghanistan, severely criticising Obama’s decision to set a July 2011 deadline for beginning the drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, some in their rank and file, including several figures associated with the populist “Tea Party” movement, are calling for an earlier date.

Indeed, when the controversial Republican Party chairman, Michael Steele, argued that Afghanistan was Obama’s “war of choice” and suggested that it was being waged in vain, calls for his resignation by party hawks were rejected by a number of right-wing activists.

“America is weary,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz told Newsweek. “We’re fast approaching a decade [of war] and no end in sight.”

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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