By Conn Hallinan
In spite of a White House report that “progress” is being made in Afghanistan, by virtually any measure the war has significantly deteriorated since the Obama administration surged troops into Kandahar and Helmand provinces. This past year has been the deadliest on record for U.S. and coalition troops. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, security has worsened throughout the country. Civilian casualties are on the rise. U.S. allies are falling away, and the central government in Kabul has never been so isolated. Polls in Afghanistan, the United States, and Europe reflect growing opposition to the nine-year conflict.
So why is the White House pursuing a strategy that is almost certain to accelerate a descent into chaos and runs counter to the administration’s stated goal of a diplomatic solution to the war?
It’s not an easy question to answer, in part because the major actors are hardly being straight with the public.
For instance, while U.S. commander Maj. Gen. David Petraeus says his strategy of counterinsurgency is making headway, the military abandoned that approach long ago. Instead it has ramped up the air war, replacing the campaign to win “hearts and minds” with “night raids” aimed at assassinating or capturing Taliban leaders and supporters.
“Night raids” have more than tripled, from an average of five per night to 17, directed at destroying “shadow governments” the Taliban have established in virtually every province in the country. Over the past three months, U.S. and NATO forces claim they have killed or captured 360 “insurgent leaders,” 960 “low-level leaders,” and some 2,400 fighters.
In spite of the raids, UN maps show the central battlegrounds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces are still considered “very high risk” and the situation has grown considerably worse in the north and east.
Who Should be Blamed?
The White House argues that the only solution to the long-running war is diplomacy, but seems bent on systematically sabotaging the process by killing the very people who would be central to any negotiated peace.
Former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil told The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill that killing Taliban leaders will not end the war, but “on the contrary, things get worse.” Indeed, according to former Taliban leader Abdul Salam Zaeef, the killings push more radical leaders to the fore.
Recent U.S. intelligence reports found that Pakistan’s unwillingness to crack down on militants in the border areas is the major problem.
In reality, there’s not a whole lot that Pakistan’s 600,000-man army can do. It’s already fighting a homegrown Taliban, and tense relations with India require keeping substantial forces on their mutual border. The army is continuing its recovery and reconstruction efforts in the wake of last year’s devastating floods. Even if there were all available forces, it’s doubtful Pakistan’s army could control the mountainous, 1,553-mile border with Afghanistan.
In turn, the Pakistanis argue that current U.S. policy–and not the border–is the problem. They point to U.S. ties with the corruption-plagued Karzai government and to the nominal impact of U.S. training has had on the Afghan army and police force. “The Americans are looking for a scapegoat,” says leading Pakistan politician Mushahid Hussain Sayed.
Is the problem that Obama has turned the war over the military?
For all of Petraeus’ talk about “hearts and minds,” the military’s job description is to kill people. That’s why Karl von Clausewitz, the great theoretician of modern war, pointed out that war is much too important a matter to be left in the hands of generals.
The Obama administration seems paralyzed by a combination of those supporting a muscular foreign policy, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the late Richard Holbrooke; a fear that the Republicans will brand them as “soft” in the 2012 elections; and an unwillingness to confront the generals.
The tragedy is that many of the pieces for a deal are already in place. The Taliban and its allies are not tightly organized groups with a common ideology–other than expelling invaders. They range from dedicated jihadists to local people fighting for turf or revenge. And while Afghans have a reputation for being fierce, they excel at the art of the deal. If they didn’t, the country would have been depopulated long ago.
Of course, substantial roadblocks remain. The Taliban insists all foreign troops must leave. The United States and Karzai demand the insurgents accept the Afghan constitution and put down their weapons. Neither is likely to happen in the foreseeable future.
Back in 2008, before the Obama administration took office, the Taliban said it would accept a “timetable” for the withdrawal of foreign troops. Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s seven-point plan called for the Taliban to share power with the current Afghan government, the consolidation of Taliban fighters into the army with amnesty. This was rejected.
Washington refuses to talk with the Haqqani Group or others it considers “irreconcilables.” Ultimately, the United States will need to negotiate with the people it’s fighting. No party has the right to veto the participation of another.
Any agreement will have to take into account regional security issues, including Islamabad’s fear that India will make Afghanistan a client state, thus surrounding Pakistan on both sides.
Who’s Buying the War?
The polls are on the side of those in Afghanistan and in the United States who want to end the war.
A recent survey by the Asia Foundation found that 83 percent of Afghanis want negotiations, (though 55 percent show little sympathy with the insurgency). According to an ABC/Washington Post poll, 60 percent of the American public say the war “is not worth fighting.” Should the Republicans charge the administration as “soft” on the Taliban, the polls indicate voters won’t buy it.
Furthermore, the conflict continues to hemorrhage money at a time of severe economic crisis. The war costs $8 billion a month, which doesn’t count the billions spent training the Afghan army and police. So far, the cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars tops $1.1 trillion.
Democrats in Congress can press for a troop drawdown to begin this year. The polls show 55 percent support withdrawals starting in summer 2011, with another 27 percent saying it should begin sooner.
According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, delaying the withdrawal date from the end of 2011—the president’s original goal—to 2014 could cost an extra $125 billion. In comparison, the House Republicans pledge to cut $100 billion from the domestic budget—excluding the military, Homeland Security, and veterans—would require a 20 percent across-the-board cut in all programs.
The war is lost. We are broke. Many of the key protagonists are prepared to talk. It’s time to silence the guns and seek common ground.
Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist. He also writes the blog, Dispatches from the Edge.