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Divisions On Way Forward In Afghanistan

  • Abubakar Siddique

U.S. Marines on patrol in Afghanistan's Farah Province on September 23

U.S. Marines on patrol in Afghanistan's Farah Province on September 23

Today the sound of U.S. soldiers battling Taliban insurgents echo in a remote corner of Afghanistan.

Amid what has already become one of the longest wars in U.S. history, an intensive debate is taking place within President Barack Obama's administration on how to move forward in that distant theater of battle.

There are disagreements over whether to back a leaked assessment report by the senior U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, purportedly calling for more troops and resources to defeat the Taliban insurgency while building a sustainable Afghan state and protecting its people. Other senior officials are said to be pressing for an entirely new strategy.

Generals And Politicians

Army General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, has said that both he and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen endorse McChrystal's assessment.

"Obviously I endorsed, the chairman endorsed General McChrystal's assessment and description," Petraeus said at a counterinsurgency conference in Washington on September 23.

But Geoff Morrell, the chief spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has said the Obama administration is considering options aside from sending more troops to Afghanistan as it continues to review the Afghan war strategy.

Morrell said Gates will not forward McChrystal's resources request to the president until his administration sorts out its internal deliberation regarding the way forward in Afghanistan.

"We are going to consider that assessment," Morrell told a Pentagon press briefing on September 23. "We are also going to consider other inputs when we are discussing where we are in Afghanistan -- how far we've come since we pursued this new strategy back in March and where we are headed."

President Barack Obama (left) and Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal
Experts suggest that divisions between the U.S. military and some people within Obama's administration, on the one hand, and senior figures within the administration on the other are the key forces likely to shape the future course in Afghanistan.

"It is very confusing here now," says Marvin Weinbaum, a veteran regional expert who has followed Afghanistan for the past four decades and is currently a specialist at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "The president has what seems to be an almost impossible choice to make. He has got military commanders by and large recommending an increment of troops, they haven't specified just how many."

He adds: "At the same time -- and this has been a change that has been gathering momentum over the last several months -- people are beginning to question the mission itself."

Weinbaum says that such disagreements were inevitable because the strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan that Obama unveiled in March focused narrowly on decimating Al -Qaeda and the protection the U.S. mainland.

"It can rightly be said that that mission can be accomplished in other ways that don't require counterinsurgency," Weinbaum argues.

Uncertainty In Kabul

While Washington debates whether to back McChrystal's call for more resources or to chart out a new strategy, Kabul is grappling with the aftermath of a controversial election.

The incumbent, President Hamid Karzai, appears to have won the election. But official results will only be announced after the UN-appointed Electoral Complaints Commission deals with hundreds of fraud claims.

Obama's regional envoy, Richard Holbrooke, has expressed the administration's willingness to work with Karzai if his reelection is certified by the commission. But given Washington's disagreements with Karzai and its public criticism of Karzai's pre-election maneuvers, analysts suggest their relations would be dicey at best.

The debate comes at a time when the Taliban insurgency is at its peak and some of its leaders see their strategy of waiting out the U.S. military presence turning a corner. The ongoing debate in Europe over the Afghan mission and talk from leading troop-contributing states of pulling out of Afghanistan appear to strengthen such Taliban perceptions.

Winnable War

Former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali notes mistakes that have been made in the course of the Afghan war effort in recent years but warns against altering policy with an eye to the dismal history of foreign military ventures in Afghanistan.

Jalali, who is currently a distinguished professor at the Near East South Asia Center of Washington's National Defense University, backs McChrystal's leaked report because "it clearly highlights the problem in Afghanistan and the way out of it."

"[The] Afghanistan war is winnable," Jalali says. "However, because of these mistakes [in the past eight years], it is much harder now and it takes a longer time. So if we now cut and leave Afghanistan, the situation will return to [pre-]9/11."

He adds: "All these sacrifices [and] investment will be [made in] vain. The cost of leaving will be much greater not only for Afghanistan [but] for the region and beyond."

Domestic Pressures

Jalali says that the outcome of U.S. domestic and foreign policy issues such as health care and the Middle East will play a key role in Obama's approach in Afghanistan. He predicts that Afghanistan will be a key topic of debate in the U.S. over the coming years.

"It is actually the pressures of domestic politics that affects the options on Afghanistan," he says.

He suggests that there is still widespread support for McChrystal's strategy, but that U.S. ambivalence regarding Afghanistan could possibly undermine its NATO allies' commitment to the war effort. That, Jalai says, "will be a disaster."

Experts suggest that the rising international casualty figures in Afghanistan are a major factor in undermining domestic U.S. support for the war effort. Compared to a total of 294 troop deaths in 2008, some 365 coalition soldiers have died in Afghanistan so far this year. With 68,000 troops in the country, most of those killed were U.S. soldiers.

Overall public support for the Afghan war has fallen below the 50 percent mark in the United States for the first time since it was launched in October 2001. A majority of Democrats (56 percent) favor removing troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible.

A Way Forward

J Alexander Thier, the director of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent nonpartisan think tank in Washington, tells RFE/RL that complaints by Karzai's rivals and the "dramatic and poorly done [election] fraud" forced Obama's administration to distance itself from supporting the outcome of the election.

But Thier says the administration is still likely to follow the strategy it announced in March, and which is backed by General McChrystal.

"I think that we will be involved in a counterinsurgency operation. I think that we will add additional troops to train the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. I think that we will increase our civilian aid," Thier says, adding that "there will be a lot of pressure on the next government to improve its performance and to fight corruption."

However, Thier suggests that if continued U.S. efforts in Afghanistan fail in the next 18 months then the arguments to leave will be much stronger: "There will be a much more intensive debate about whether we should begin some sort of process of withdrawal."

Despite the flagging public support for the Afghan war, many in the Washington still consider abandoning Afghanistan a worse option than continuing the effort there.

Jonathan Morgenstein, a senior national security fellow at Third Way, a think tank in Washington, echoes that prognosis.

"I know there are a lot of people, a lot of Democrats, who are feeling like this is hopeless. And I disagree with that it would be difficult and there will be just tragic numbers of more military casualties," Morgenstein tells RFE/RL.

"But we can't just choose, 'Well, are we going to continue with this policy or not?' We have to choose, 'Are we going to continue with this policy or choose a different one?' And all of the other alternatives are worse."

'Back To A Future'

Some experts suggest that compared to other Western states, the United States has played a major role in determining modern Afghan history. U.S. arms, money and political patronage enabled the anti-Soviet Afghan mujahedin guerrillas to force the Red Army out of their country.

But when the United States dramatically curbed its involvement in the country after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, Afghanistan endured a bloody civil war among mujahedin factions that decimated the Afghan state and turned it into a global terrorist sanctuary as Afghans suffered under hard-line extremists.

Jalali argues that the United States and the international community have a moral obligation to help Afghanistan, and that they are bound by various agreements and pledges they voluntarily made since 2001.

"There are some people [in the West] who believe that we cannot change Afghanistan and we cannot bring some kind of stability to the country," he says.

But Jalali says Afghans strongly disagree with such views. He argues that Afghans want Washington and its allies to "undo what you have done to us in the past 30 years."

And that, he says, means restoring the stability that existed in Afghanistan before the 1978 communist coup.

"Before I978, Afghanistan had a stable government. It had the trust of its population. It controlled its territory, it lived in peace with its neighbors. There was no fundamentalism, no extremism," Jalali says. "So they want to go back to their future. And that's what all Afghans want."

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