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Obama's Afghanistan Strategy Likely to Ditch Karzai, Focus on Local Governance

One thing that came through loud and clear during Defense Secretary Robert Gate’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week was that the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan is the top foreign policy priority of the Obama administration. The big question on everybody’s lips: What is the new administration’s new strategy to bring about a different outcome to the long festering security sore that is Afghanistan?

Gates said, to begin with, the military plans to speed more troops to Afghanistan to try and reverse the Taliban’s growing strength. But in his next breath he warned against sending so many troops that the U.S. is seen by ordinary Afghans as an army of occupation. When that happens, invading armies are sent scurrying for the exits by an enraged populace, either to the east over the Khyber Pass like the British, or north over the Amu Darya River like the Soviets. To avoid a Kipling-like outcome to our military adventure in Afghanistan, Gates says the U.S. focus should be on building up the Afghan army and police force as rapidly as possible so as to put an Afghan face on the much needed constabulary counterinsurgency force. Gates said many of the U.S. troops on their way to Afghanistan will serve as advisors to the fledgling Afghan security forces.

More troops will certainly aid in the fight against the Taliban and other insurgent groups and go far to achieve what Gates said is the coalition’s primary goal in Afghanistan: that it not become a sanctuary for terrorists. But for a counterinsurgency to be successful, the Afghan people have to become secure in the knowledge that once the foreign troops leave, that something else will replace them and provide security and basic services. In the remote regions, that something remains the Taliban.

The counterinsurgency gurus at the Center for a New American Security, the Washington think tank that has served as a feeder to the Obama Pentagon, say the focus should shift from propping up the corrupt government in Kabul to building capacity among tribal and local leaders in the provinces. “An internal balance between centralized and traditional power centers – not central government control everywhere – is the key to Afghan stability,” they write.

The Bush administration’s close ties to the corrupt and ineffective Karzai government kept it in power long past its expiration date. During his tesimony, Gates wouldn't say corruption reached into the "highest" levels of the Afghan government when prodded by one senator, settling for a more political "high levels" of government.

Since the Afghan people view the government in Kabul as corrupt, our propping it up does us no favors. Which is one of the reasons why Obama’s choice for Afghanistan/Pakistan special envoy, Amb. Richard Holbrooke, is such welcome news. Speaking last year at CSIS, Holbrooke made it clear he views Karzai as part of the problem, not the solution. He said the U.S. must stop trying to bolster the Karzai government in Kabul, which he called “weak and corrupt,” and focus more on governance in the provinces. “I don’t believe you can have a strong unitary government running the country from Kabul, its going to be a loosely governed country.” There is little risk of Afghanistan fragmenting, like so many feared might happen in Iraq, he said, as Afghans do not have “separatist tendencies."

He had some caustic words for the Bush team’s failure to devote more money to Afghanistan and to treat Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single theater of operations, what he called “AfPak.” The national border that runs between the two countries that the insurgents don’t recognize but the coalition does, prevents crafting an effective military response, as “NATO can fight only on one side of AfPak.” NATO troops can run down insurgents on the western part of AfPak, but they can’t operate on the eastern part, in Pakistan’s very loosely controlled Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where insurgents find sanctuary. Any answer to Afghanistan must include Pakistan, Holbrooke said.

Holbrooke recognizes the difficulties of fighting an insurgency with access to a nearby sanctuary: at the age of 21, as a newly minted Foreign Service officer, he was dispatched to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam in 1963. He doesn’t believe the Taliban can win a popular insurgency as there is limited support for their style of Islamic rule among Afghans. The problem is the Afghan government can’t win either. “The weakness of the government is so much greater than is understood here.”

He did not think a massive troop increase is the answer. “No doubt that U.S. troops will clear out the space where they arrive. But it’s like putting your fist in the water, when you withdraw your fist the water replaces it. The local authorities become more dependant on the American troops, and the people become more dependant on Americans because their government is such a mess.” What’s needed is improving governance at the local level to address Afghan people’s needs, an effort that will take many years to accomplish and billions more in aid money. That money must go to the people though, not western contactors.

U.S. efforts in Afghanistan cannot succeed without going after the powerful drug lords, Holbrooke said, and it was an “absolute scandal” that no major Afghan drug lords, many with close ties to Karzai, have ever been arrested. He said the U.S. must answer for putting some of those warlords back into power in 2001 and 2002. Karzai only laughed when Holbrooke asked him why not a single drug lord had been arrested. He called the American counternarcotics effort “appalling… the worst American counterdrug program I’ve ever seen… because it isn’t just wasted money, its actually recruiting the enemy. Drug crop keeps increasing. Because we’re going after the poorest farmers, were driving them into the hands of the Taliban. Our efforts have no effect on the heroin trade. Afghanistan’s becoming a narco-state.”

Holbrooke predicted that the war in Afghanistan would be the longest war in American history. He didn’t have much praise for the Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. “Anyone of us who served in Vietnam read that manual forty years ago. It doesn’t seem to show any lessons learned from Vietnam, which I find worrisome.”

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