Afghan strategy grows urgent
WASHINGTON — With the war in Afghanistan in its eighth year, the debate among U.S. officials and their NATO allies is heating up.
Complicating the decision-making are unfavorable trends — higher casualties among U.S. and allied forces, as well as Afghans; a resurgent Taliban insurgency; and low turnout and widespread fraud charges in Afghanistan's presidential and provincial elections last month.
The increasing casualties — more than 300 U.S. and NATO troops so far this year — reflect an aggressive push into southern Afghanistan, particularly Helmand province.
The U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is sending a much-anticipated war strategy to the White House. Many experts expect him to call for more troops within weeks.
Yet public-opinion polls show support for the war waning among Americans — and calls to withdraw are growing from the political left and right.
"The key question ... really comes down to what U.S. interests are at stake," said Nora Bensahel, a senior political scientist specializing in military strategy and doctrine for the Rand Corp., a Washington-based think tank.
Bensahel said President Obama has focused on a counter-insurgency mission and the training of Afghan security forces.
"You can't make sustainable progress on ... post-conflict reconstruction unless you have the security situation under control," she explained.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen has acknowledged "a sense of urgency."
"Time is not on our side," Mullen said during a recent news conference. "I believe we understand that. And I believe we are going to regain the initiative, because we have a strategy."
He said U.S. forces "have to start to turn this thing around, from a security standpoint, over the next 12 to 18 months."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates agrees that "time is limited," but has dismissed calls to withdraw. He said he is "mindful" of public opinion, "but we think that we now have the resources and the right approach to start making some headway."
Hardin Lang, just back from election-monitoring in Afghanistan's second-largest city, Khandahar, said U.S. officials must be clear when discussing a withdrawal timetable.
"Danger comes when you don't declare clearly what you mean by 'progress,' " said Lang, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It is important to define in such a way that it is simple and easy to understand" — for Americans and Afghans alike.
"There is a danger," he explained, "that when they hear in Khandahar that we are looking for progress in 12 to 18 months, they think: 'Well, does that mean if something doesn't go right in 12 to 18 months, you are leaving?' ... The Taliban are very clearly under the impression that time is on their side."
The prospect of a short-term U.S. presence, Lang said, gives Afghans little incentive to risk siding with a weak government "when there is no going back."
U.S. forces there are set to roughly double to 68,000 this year. If McChrystal requests still more, that is sure to be hotly debated in Congress — particularly among Democrats eyeing next year's mid-term election.
Yet a counter-insurgency strategy of "clear, hold and build" is troop-heavy because it means protecting civilians, said Bensahel of Rand.
"If you don't have enough troops ... you simply can't do the 'hold' part" of the strategy, which she described as "most important, ultimately, to success."
That strategy requires bolstering Afghan security forces. The army is the country's most respected institution but numbers just 90,000; many Afghanis view the national police as corrupt and predatory.
Forty-two nations contribute to the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, in Afghanistan — although few allow their troops to engage in combat.
Although Washington wants more NATO troops to be committed, its European partners face war weariness at home, too.
According to some analysts, that poses a grave threat to the world's most successful military alliance.
To promote NATO's re-investment in Afghanistan, the Washington-based Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress is convening experts on Europe, NATO and South Asia to assess European vulnerabilities emanating from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Its report will be given to members of Congress, to use when meeting their European counterparts, said John Boyer, the center's congressional relations director.
"We view NATO as the most important strategic military alliance that we are a part of," he said, "and if Afghanistan fails, NATO fails. No one is talking about the consequences and the impact it would have on NATO."
Complicating an already-serious situation, Afghanistan's election sparked scores of voter-fraud complaints. Although not all votes are counted, President Hamid Karzai leads his main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
A national electoral commission is investigating the fraud allegations.
Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said: "A Karzai victory amid unresolved allegations of vote-tampering would leave his new government on shaky ground and damage the credibility of the coalition forces, which would be perceived as supporting a sham election."
Rand's Bensahel and other experts said one other critical element is not even being discussed: What will happen if U.S. troops withdraw?
"I think you have to look at what the consequences would be of really ungoverned spaces in a lot of the country, or the Taliban coming (back) into rule in a lot of the country," she said. "Defining it strictly in terms of U.S. national-security interests, that strikes me as likely to be very similar to (what) we saw before Sept. 11 in letting al-Qaida come in and have a free rein."
Heritage's Curtis said she believes a U.S. withdrawal "will embolden Islamic extremists throughout the region and be seen as a huge victory for those who were able to oust the U.S. and 40-plus countries."
Curtis said she fears it might ignite greater instability in the nuclear-armed region.
"It is not an easy fight," she said. "But my belief is that it is one worth fighting for, because the U.S. security stakes are enormously high."
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