Thursday, December 16, 2010

Progressively Confused

“To tell you the truth, the government has the upper hand now” in and around Kandahar, the Taliban member said. A midlevel commander who has been with the movement since its founding in 1994 and knows it well, he was interviewed by telephone on the condition that his name not be used.
The NYT has a nice blend of articles this morning on Afghanistan to cover the new review of Afghanistan.  There is a piece showing that the surge into Kandahar is having a positive effect, there is a piece showing that Kunduz's situation is spiraling downwards, and there is an article that discusses the review and the plan to start reducing American troops in the summer. 

What all this shows is (a) Afghanistan is complicated; (b) the American domestic politics of this effort is even more so.  The Republicans want Obama to stick it out either because they think it is in the national interest or because they want him to fight with his base and be stuck with the Afghan mission (now that he is largely out of the Iraq business).  The Democrats, always seeking to destroy their own, are anti-war now (where were they in 2003?), pushing for a withdrawal.  Obama will make a token reduction to keep his promise, but not much more than that, as the Afghans are hardly ready.  Indeed, the whole idea of Afghanization of the war effort is challenged by events in Kunduz.  The idea was to start with replacing ISAF forces with Afghan ones in the more stable districts.  While Kunduz was not at the very top of the list of likely spots for such a transition, it was far closer to the top than the bottom.

Indeed, the effectiveness of the surge thus far into Kandahar makes it hard to justify reductions now--more Americans on the ground do make a difference.  For much of the campaign (from 2006 onwards), there were too few troops, mostly Canadians, to do more than to hold downtown Kandahar and poke at the Taliban.  Now there are enough to actually do more than clear, but to hold and build as they say.  Of course, the big problems remain very, very challenging with little or no progress: poppies, Pakistan and governance.  More troops cannot address those, but less troops can exacerbate these challenges.

I think we need another year at this level more or less to see if we can turn more of the tide to provide the government with some breathing space, but the less Karzai does, the more I see the effort to be to create a decent interval between the time the US and its allies depart and when the civil war begins anew.  Because it comes down to governance, and Karzai and his pals are just not doing enough.

My inexpert opinion is one of ambivalence.  I see the challenges ahead pretty clearly, but I am concerned about the consequences of a departure.  The big question at the end of the day really is the stability and direction of Pakistan.  Is staying in Afghanistan better or worse for Pakistan's stability?  Because the truth of it is that Afghanistan only matters beyond its borders in terms of the exporting of heroin and of terrorism.  But domestic politics in the US plus the lack of credibility of any Taliban-esque government not to mess around with Pakistan or beyond make it very difficult to leave.  Plus, just as in Vietnam, we would be creating an opportunity for mass killings in our wake. 

Oh, and the NYT wants Obama to get the Pakistanis to do more to curb the Taliban on their side of the border.  Great advice.  Ok, it is not advice since the NYT does not tell Obama how to do this.  The reality is that the US has limited leverage.  If only we could cast an imperius curse to get the Pakistans to do our bidding.  But we do not have magical powers, alas.

So, that is my progress report.  What is yours?

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