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The Fragility of Afghanistan

Posted By Alan W. Dowd On December 22, 2010 @ 12:30 am In FrontPage | 1 Comment

The White House review of the war in Afghanistan is cautiously optimistic about the situation in that fractured, friendless country. Among other things, the report declares, “al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001… the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas…the surge in coalition military and civilian resources, along with an expanded special operations forces targeting campaign and expanded local security measures at the village level, has reduced overall Taliban influence.” Moreover, there has been “significant progress in disrupting and dismantling the Pakistan-based leadership and cadre of al Qaeda over the past year.” Even so, the report warns, “these gains remain fragile and reversible.”

What could reverse the hard-earned, fragile gains of 2010 in 2011?

Rising Casualties

The U.S. military and its coalition partners have just endured the bloodiest, deadliest year of the war. As of this writing, 491 Americans have been killed, and 208 allied troops have been killed—up from last year’s totals of 317 and 294, respectively, which was way up from 2008’s totals of 155 and 140. This is starting to have an impact on allied populations. Support for the war is at a record low, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, with 60 percent of Americans saying the war has not been “worth fighting.” Seventy percent of Brits say the war is unwinnable; 62 percent of Germans want to withdraw their forces.

Mixed Signals

That leads us to the danger of sending mixed signals to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Because of the costs of war and lack of overall progress, NATO’s commitment to, and footprint in, Afghanistan is starting to shrink. Although all of NATO’s 28 members technically have troops in Afghanistan, several are token contingents—some in the single digits—that serve no military purpose at all. Worse, the Dutch are withdrawing their contingent. Italy plans to begin pulling out its forces next summer. France wants to speed up the handover of its area of responsibility. And Canada will withdraw its combat forces by mid-2011. Although Canada will leave 950 military trainers in Afghanistan, the training mission “will occur in classrooms,” according to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Even Washington has sent mixed signals. It pays to recall that when Gen. Stanley McChrystal asked for the resources necessary to win what President Barack Obama has called “a war of necessity,” the president balked. Then, after a lengthy re-review of his own policy, the president concluded that “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before promising that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”

Of course, vital national interests don’t have expiration dates, and letting the Taliban know when the U.S. military will end its offensive won’t make victory any easier to achieve. Hence, the president has backed away from the withdrawal promise. However, the Taliban hasn’t forgotten about it and no doubt sense that America’s commitment is waning.

Global Reaction to the Drone War

The surge of forces, including additional Special Ops personnel, has been an important part of the recent gains inside Afghanistan, as has Gen. David Petraeus’ insistence on an unfettered air campaign. But what’s arguably having the greatest impact on degrading the leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban is the so-called “drone war” in Pakistan. And it’s starting to draw criticism from the usual suspects.

Officials at the United Nations are calling for the creation of a special panel to examine “the ethics and legality of unmanned military weapons,” the Washington Post reports.

“The international community urgently needs to address the legal, political, ethical and moral implications of the development of lethal robotic technologies,” according to Christof Heyns, a UN official specializing in the investigation of extrajudicial executions. Heyns says the UN should address “the fundamental question of whether lethal force should ever be permitted to be fully automated.”

Most Americans recognize the drone war as an essential element in the wider campaign against terror. Indeed, CIA Director Leon Panetta calls the drone war “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.” However, the UN Human Rights Council apparently views drone strikes as executions without trial. “It is important to note that if a targeted killing violates [international law]…then regardless of who conducts it—intelligence personnel or State armed forces—the author, as well as those who authorized it, can be prosecuted for war crimes.”

Given the president’s stated desire for U.S. policies to be endorsed by the UN, it’s not difficult to imagine international pressure having a negative impact on this successful aspect of the war.

Playing Games in Pakistan

“Pakistan is central to our efforts to defeat al Qaeda and prevent its return to the region,” according to the report. Consolidating the gains of 2010 “will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks.”

Yet Pakistan is not a dependable partner, as its military and intelligence agencies prove again and again.

Leaked diplomatic cables indicate that Pakistan’s “military and intelligence establishment has taken steps since spring 2009 to hamper the operations of the [U.S.] embassy.” The U.S. ambassador was forced last week to explain away the Pakistani military’s failure to carry out promised attacks on tribal areas. Also last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed his Pakistani counterparts of America’s “strategic impatience” with Islamabad’s phony war. And this week, we learned that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) “deliberately exposed the identity of the CIA’s top spy in Pakistan,” as the Washington Post reports.

It pays to recall that a) this is the behavior of a supposed ally, b) it was ISI that spawned the Taliban in 1994-95 in a shortsighted attempt to stabilize Afghanistan and c) Osama bin Laden’s address is somewhere in Pakistan’s ungoverned Taliban territories.

Through all the diplomatic duplicity and military games, Islamabad spurns offers for direct assistance, invoking its sovereign borders in one breath before claiming it is too weak to control its territory in the next. We are left with two unsettling prospects: Either Pakistan’s intelligence and military assets are beyond the government’s control, or the government is complicit in what its intelligence operatives do and what its military won’t do.

This same conundrum confounded the Bush administration’s war efforts in Afghanistan, and it will continue to undermine the Obama administration’s efforts in Afghanistan unless or until elements within the Pakistani government are recognized for what their actions reveal them to be: enemies of the United States.

Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.


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