By dragging their feet on a coherent strategy for the Afghan War, policy-makers in the White House, the Pentagon and the National Security Council are leaving it up to the American public decide its fate. This situation has been developing since early last week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington observers note.
It would not be the first time in recent American history that the fate of a war is determined by public debate. It happened in the 1960s and 1970s over Vietnam and almost did in 2006 and 2007 in the Iraq conflict, until the Bush administration authorized a belated surge policy to save the day.
The difference now is that President Barack Obama and his staff are not picking up the Afghan gauntlet. They are letting it slip out of their grasp, deliberately or by default, to the American street.
In essence, the core rationale of the US war in Afghanistan is being revised from day to day.
On August 30, the US and NATO commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, posted a 66-page document to defense secretary Robert Gates, demanding more resources to save the US mission from defeat. It was leaked to the US press three weeks later on Monday, September 21. In the document McChrystal says bluntly: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) – while Afghan security capacity matures – risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 22 it was Vice President Joe Biden's turn. He said that the US should put emphasis on rooting out Al Qaeda from strongholds along the Pakistan border using Predator drone strikes, special forces and other tactics.
This would shift the focus of the conflict to Pakistan, he admitted, but U.S. forces would meanwhile accelerate the training of Afghan troops for taking on the Taliban. Biden has also said in the past that Pakistan is the main threat to American interests.
Washington awash with proposals
What he is suggesting now is to scale down the anti-Taliban war in Afghanistan and concentrate on beating al Qaeda in Pakistan. Biden's proposal does not begin to touch on the question of whether separating al Qaeda and Taliban is feasible or the degree to which al Qaeda influences Taliban's policies.
His was not the only proposal aired in Washington this week. There were also suggestions:
– To launch a surge of US forces in Afghanistan by adding two combat brigades, numbering roughly 10,000 troops, so lifting total US strength in the country from 68,000 to about 78,000.
– To build international alliances for containing the Taliban and other regional extremists that would rope in India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, China, and yes, even Iran, which cooperated with Washington at the outset of the Afghan war.
Since recent opinion polls show that 59 percent of the US public is dissatisfied with the war's conduct, the public debate's outcome is self-evident: The phased fadeout of American military involvement in Afghanistan, the gradual drawdown of the US troop presence and transfer of the war's management to local forces.
At the same time, the weak and corrupt regime of the re-elected Afghan president Hamid Karzai has little chance of recovering the large swathes of the country in which Taliban has firmly established its rule and imposed public order and economic policies.
The insurgents also operate effectively in US and Afghan jails where their agents indoctrinate and recruit prisoners and mastermind attacks, as Gen. McChrystal has graphically reported.
The Karzai option is a bad alternative
Because Karzai's reelection was tainted by fraud allegations (according to European observers, 1.1 million votes, a third of all ballots cast, are fraudulent.) and the 92,000-men strong Afghan army is also rife with corruption and insurgent penetration, neither can be considered competent for taking on the Taliban.
At this late point, it is hard to imagine Washington winning another three-to-five years to maintain US forces in Afghanistan for fighting Taliban, cleansing the Afghan army of corruption and al Qaeda-Taliban infiltration and enlarging it to produce an effective fighting force of some quarter of a million troops capable of taking over from the American military.
Early US efforts to build tribal forces for combating Taliban on the model of Iraq's Awakening Councils which successfully fought al Qaeda have failed. One compelling cause was that the Taliban had pre-empted the US unnoticed. It is now too late for this divide-and-rule tactic to work in Afghanistan and its complex tribal patchwork.
On Sept 17, President Obama said: “One of the things that I'm absolutely clear about is you have to get the strategy right and then make determinations about resources.”
On September 20, he told CNN: “I don't want to put the resource question before the strategy question.”
He added: “… right now, the question is-the first question is-are we doing the right thing? Are we pursuing the right strategy? I don't want to send more American men and women to Afghanistan before it is right.”
Mr. Obama's comments suggested that the White House is reassessing its strategy in Afghanistan – yet again.
Chopping and changing in Washington
Six months ago, In March, he unveiled his first counterinsurgency policy for Afghanistan, summed up in a nutshell as: “Disrupt, defeat and dismantle al Qaeda.”
But then, Operation Khanjar, or Strike of the Sword, launched July 2 in the southern province of Helmand as the biggest US offensive ever against Taliban strongholds, featured a fundamental shift in White House policy. Nearly 5,000 Marines, backed by 50 aircraft, were ordered to “shape, clear, hold and build.”
They were directed to focus on lasting security and development of population centers and work for the transition of security to Afghan forces, rather than just defeating insurgents in the field and remote areas. Operation Khanjar was meant to be a model for other regions of Afghanistan.
The new directive omitted mention of Al-Qaeda; it had been replaced by Taliban as the primary enemy and the new buzzword was “nation-building.”
That strategy too has been ditched as President Obama ponders a new approach after his Afghanistan commander Gen. McChrystal warned him that going on as before without a major injection of troops and new tactics would lead to failure.
The US president has had to admit on camera that he is not clear on the direction – or even the core rationale – of the Afghanistan War. So another flip-flip is on the way, Obama's third strategy shift in six months.
Is it the last?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources expect Obama to turn down the requests of the military, who believe like McChrystal, that “inadequate resources will likely result in mission failure” but without reinforcements the chance to win the war is doomed.
The White House may still not be ready to heed the US commander in Afghanistan, but is anyone in Washington today listening to the opposition?
Mullah Omar's message: We can talk if you leave
The Taliban leader Mullah Omar published a long message on Saturday, September 19, for the Muslim festival of Eid ul-Fitr, in which he says: “The invaders (US) should study the history of Afghanistan, from the days of the aggressor Alexander at the Ganges to this day and learn their lesson. They are still ignoring history, even after seeing with their own eyes the events of the past eight years.
“Have they achieved anything in the past eight years? He asks rhetorically.
Mullah is quite clear about his objectives in the Afghanistan war and says among other things:
“…Our goal is to gain independence for the country and to establish a just Islamic system there on the basis of the aspirations of the Muslim nation. We may consider any option leading to the achievement of this goal. We have left open all options and ways towards this end. However, they will only come about when the country is free of the trampling feet of invading forces and has gained its independence…”
The Taliban leader is therefore offering to discuss with the United States any military and political solution for the country with one stipulation: US and NATO forces must withdraw from Afghanistan.
“… The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan favors the participation of the true sons of this land in government and in government-building after foreign forces have left.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has definite and practicable plans for the future of Afghanistan based on the Islamic principles of a just social system [which will go into effect] after the withdrawal of foreign forces. They include rehabilitation of the social and economic infrastructure, the advancement and development of the educational system, industrialization and development of agriculture.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan wants good and positive relations with all its neighbors amid mutual respect, and will open a new chapter of good neighborliness, cooperation and mutual economic ties.
“We declare ourselves the victims of the enemy media's black propaganda, which have planted seeds of suspicion between us and a number of countries of the world. They misrepresent us as the enemies of education and women's rights. They also call us a threat to the countries of the world.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is anxious to remove these suspicions provided the atmosphere is conducive to this change.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan calls on the public of the West not to be deceived by the words [of president Obama] who says the conflict in Afghanistan is a war of necessity. The West is not obliged to wage this war.”
Like the US president, Mullah Omar omits mention of al Qaeda in his long message to the faithful.
Clearly, he sees his following, the Taliban, engaged in single combat with America.