General Petraeus is replacing General McChrystal as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and he has his work cut out for him. On the battlefield, he faces the problems of Pakistani and Iranian support for the Taliban and other radical Islamic militants and tough conditions that have forced the offensive into Kandahar to be delayed. At home, he faces rising anti-war sentiment and President Obama’s July 2011 deadline for when troops must begin coming home. These four problems are undermining the war in Afghanistan and must be dealt with soon for success to be possible.
Defense Secretary Gates says that visible progress must be made by the end of the year in order to maintain public support for the war. The American population is becoming more pessimistic about the war, with only one-fifth of likely voters expecting the situation to improve in six months. Over half disapprove of President Obama’s handling of Afghanistan, even though 58 percent support his decision to start bringing troops home in July 2011.
The declining public support is not helped by the misleading statistic given by CIA Director Leon Panetta that only 50 to 100 Al-Qaeda members are in Afghanistan, a statement which makes the war seem less important to national security. Bill Roggio, the Managing Editor of The Long War Journal, has criticized this estimate, pointing to the fact that in 2008 half of the insurgents in Kunar were said to be foreigners and more are believed to have moved in.
“Now, how many of these are actually al Qaeda is certainly something up to debate, as the odds are good that the bulk of these are Pakistanis. But as we’ve argued many times before, the distinctions between these groups are breaking down as time moves on,” Roggio wrote. This statistic desperately needs to be clarified, as many of the Taliban and other terrorists we’re fighting in Afghanistan are in league with Al-Qaeda though not official members. As the death toll rises, Americans will need to be convinced that sacrificing our soldiers is worth the cost.
June was the deadliest month since the war began for NATO with 102 soldiers killed, almost three times that of May. Unfortunately, counter-insurgency campaigns involve more aggressive operations in the beginning resulting in an inevitable spike in casualties before progress including a drop in violence can be measured. All of the additional soldiers won’t be in place until August, further reducing the time available to affect decisive changes. With anti-war sentiment and pessimism already so high, this represents a major problem for President Obama.
The decision to delay the offensive into Kandahar, frequently referred to as the Taliban’s stronghold, until autumn gives President Obama and General Petraeus significantly less time to make the progress that the public requires and less time to stabilize Afghanistan enough for a safe withdrawal to begin in July 2011.
The Obama Administration is already setting the stage for a minimal reduction in troop levels when that target date comes, careful to fulfill his pledge but not jeopardize the mission. He is reminding the American people that July 2011 is when troops begin transitioning out of Afghanistan, not when all forces will leave. General Petraeus is acting as a reassuring voice, saying the date “doesn’t mean we suddenly turn off the lights and let the door close behind us.” Defense Secretary Gates is going further, hinting that reductions could be delayed. “If it appears that the strategy’s not working and that we are not going to be able to transition in 2011, then we will take a hard look at the strategy itself. We’re not just going to throw these [Afghans] into the swimming pool and walk away,” he said.
The third factor undermining the war in Afghanistan is the conditions that led to the delay of the Kandahar offensive. The difficulties in Marjah have caused a reassessment of the preparation needed for taking on Kandahar. The operation will be significantly larger than the one undertaken in Marjah, as the population is nearly six times greater. There will likely have to be follow-up operations in the rest of Kandahar Province in order to protect the city as the Taliban militants are forced out and try to take up positions nearby.
Frederick and Kimberly Kagan argue that Kandahar City and Marjah cannot be adequately compared. They dispute the notion that it is a Taliban stronghold, writing that “The insurgents remain very strong in Zhari, Panjwayi, and Maiwand Districts to the west and south of Kandahar City, but they do not control any of those areas as completely as they controlled Marjah.”
One of the reasons the offensive was delayed was so that relationships with the tribes could be cemented, as this was key to success in Iraq. This effort has been stymied by the fact that some Pashtun tribes have family ties to Taliban militants and warlords often fight with each other. Jason Meszaros, the author of _Interrogation of Morals_, served in Afghanistan as an Army intelligence officer and says it will be difficult to win the tribes over.
“The Sunni tribes that turned against Al Qaeda were fighting for representation in the new Iraqi government. The Pashtun tribes that encompass the Taliban want to control the entire country of Afghanistan, establish their own government and run it as an Islamic theocracy,” he told FrontPage.
There has been some success in allying with Pashtun tribes despite these obstacles. The Shinwari tribe of 400,000 pledged to send at least one male per family to join the police or army. Polls indicate there is a longing to support the U.S. against the Taliban if given the opportunity.
A poll from January found that 68 percent of Afghans support the military presence, 61 percent support the sending of additional U.S. troops, and 51 percent have a favorable view of the U.S. The Taliban fares much worse, with 69 percent of Afghans viewing them as their greatest threat and 90 percent favoring the Karzai government over them, despite the election irregularities and corruption. It is worth noting that the Afghan attitude towards the U.S. became more positive after the surge was announced.
Meszaros agrees that the U.S. has the advantage in public opinion.
“According to Human Rights Watch over 400,000 civilians died during the Taliban regime. Contrast that to the 16,000 civilian deaths (again Human Rights Watch numbers) during the almost 10 year American campaign and the majority of Afghanis would rather have the Americans in charge. Even though a fair amount of the civilian deaths under American control were caused by Taliban attacks (IED’s, etc),” he said.
The fourth major problem facing General Petraeus is foreign support for the Taliban and other militants. Members of the Taliban admit that they are becoming more reliant upon Iranian support, which includes harbor, arms and training. Support from the Pakistani government is significantly higher than often assumed. Up to seven of the 15 members of the Shura council in Pakistan are agents of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI.
A report by the London School of Economics concludes that this support is not the work of rogue elements, but is the “official ISI policy.” It alleges that President Zardari and other senior officials have visited Taliban leaders that have been imprisoned and have told them that their detainment is temporary and is being done just to alleviate U.S. pressure. Afghan intelligence has also found that over $1 billion worth of Saudi money has entered their country over the past four years via Waziristan. The hawala networks continue to allow for the flow of foreign currency into Afghanistan that can fund militants and criminal activity.
The three obstacles of declining public support, foreign support for Islamic extremists, and the conditions causing the delay of the Kandahar offensive are exasperated by the fourth obstacle, the July 2011 deadline. When that time comes, President Obama must decide whether to begin a major withdrawal, push back the timeline, or take a middle course by withdrawing a small amount of soldiers that won’t significantly alter the battlefield. The fate of Afghanistan will be decided by President Obama’s political backbone as it will be by General Petraeus’ military effort.