Clearly goaded by the rapidly deteriorating war situation, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen told a news conference Tuesday, Feb. 10, that more American troops were needed in Afghanistan as soon as possible to hold territory where insurgents were routed. It was up to President Barack Obama to make this decision, he said, but time was of the essence.
He spoke the day after the Pentagon announced that orders to deploy additional US troops to Afghanistan may not be issued until after a White House strategy review was completed.
But the defense department is clearly as impatient as Adm. Mullen. Last week, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said: “My understanding is that whatever decision is made on additional forces for Afghanistan, it will likely take place in advance of the conclusion of the strategy review that this White House has undertaken on Afghanistan.”
To stress this point he explained that the logistics of sending tens of thousands of troops half-way around the world would require those decisions before the White House review is completed, which could be several weeks or more.
Across the Atlantic, America's closest ally in Afghanistan also sounded an alarm when UK foreign secretary David Miliband said: “Britain and her NATO allies in Afghanistan are stuck in a stalemate with the Taleban” created in parts of the country through their use of improvised explosive devices.
“In military terms,” he said, “if there wasn’t an international force there, the Taleban could overwhelm the Afghan security forces.”
Wednesday, Feb. 11, the Taleban made a mockery of the double cordon of US-led international security protecting the Afghan capital, Kabul and the Afghan forces securing its heart.
Taliban aims at grabbing parts of Kabul
A large group of well-armed gunmen, all wearing explosive vests, broke through these cordons and attacked three ministries, justice, education and interior, and a prison north of the capital. On the same day, armed men exchanged fire with the guards at the presidential palace. At least 27 people were killed in those attacks and 60 injured -, many of them civil servants, who were dragged out of their offices by their murderers.
It was the deadliest and best-organized Taliban attack on Kabul since the attempted assassination of president Hamid Karzai on April 27, 2008, while taking the salute at a military parade in the capital, and the subsequent onslaught on the Indian embassy of July 7, which left 40 people dead and 140 injured.
The Taliban claimed they were retaliating against poor treatment of prisoners in Afghan jails. But according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, they staged these spectacular coordinated attacks to show off their ability to reach any corner of the country they wished, undeterred by the presence of US or Afghan forces.
US intelligence estimates that this was the first of such Taliban demonstrations in Kabul and it aimed at driving certain messages home:
1. The Obama administration and American army chiefs working on a strategic review for the consignment of another 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan were being told that they were too late. The new manpower injection, doubling the US contingent leading the leading the 28,000 NATO International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) forces from 40 countries, can hardly arrive before September. By then, the insurgents expect to have stretched their command of parts of Afghanistan and driven into large sections of Kabul.
A British special envoy dedicated to the exit of foreign troops
2. Taliban has geared its offensive for grabbing parts of the capital to a series of happenings marching forward from this month, through April, August and September.
February: The new special US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, David Holbrooke is taking two weeks for an on-the-spot tour of the two nations before determining his course. Taliban means to make sure that his course is to begin charting a strategy for the US army's exit from Afghanistan and making way for the restoration of Taliban rule.
Above all, the insurgents will do their utmost to lead Holbrooke away from his plan to introduce India into a peacemaking venture in Afghanistan in partnership with Pakistan. This plan is revealed here for the first time by DEBKA–Net-Weekly's Washington sources.
The insurgent leaders took encouragement from president Karzai's call again at the Munich security conference last week for reconciliation with Taliban forces “who are not part of al Qaeda, who are not part of terrorist networks, who want to return to their country.”
He again criticized NATO for the high number of civilian casualties inflicted in the course of the war on the insurgency.
Taliban noted with interest this week's appointment by the British government of one of its most experienced diplomats, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, as London's own special emissary to Afghanistan and Pakistan as of June.
The UK government is clearly not making do with Holbrooke's appointment by Washington.
The point about Cowper-Coles is that he is one of the leading advocates of the proposition that the only way to deal with the Taliban is by coming to terms with them and passing them the reins of Afghan government in stages.
Seeking more EU troops and a comprehensive strategy
British premier Gordon Brown appointed him to make sure that the British government and army fighting in Afghanistan – and this view – are represented at a high level in the Obama administration's deliberations on future military policy and strategy for Afghanistan.
And, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and counter-terror sources, the Afghan insurgents conclude that the more military pressure they apply to Isaf, the sooner Washington will come around to the British diplomat's way of thinking.
Col. John Nagl, an Iraq veteran and co-author of Gen. David Petraeus' successful strategy in that country, confirmed this in an article in the London Daily Telegraph which quoted him as saying that US-led forces have until late September or early October to reverse the gains made by the Taliban in the past two years. Otherwise, he said, the insurgency will establish a durable base “that would make a sustained Western military presence in Afghanistan futile.”
Since the new influx of US troops is not expected to reach Afghanistan by then, the Taliban deduces that its chances of achieving its goals are better than good.
April: A NATO summit has been scheduled for April to forge a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and respond to Washington's demand for more European soldiers to fight there.
So far, only the UK has stepped up with more troops. This week, Gen. David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, flew to Paris to talk president Nicolas Sarkozy round. He came away with no commitment for additional troops.
Even an exit strategy would take years
August: Afghanistan holds presidential elections this month. Taliban has decided to disrupt them – unless the Americans improbably permit a candidate standing for the tribes affiliated with Taliban to run for election. Insurgent leaders believe that progress in negotiations with the US will enable them to delay the election.
September: The first US reinforcements begin landing in Kabul. They will find Taliban spreading its wings across the country and capital. An American official familiar with the Afghan battle scene told DEBKA-Net–Weekly's sources that even if Obama decides to end the US military involvement in Afghanistan, the exit process will take years to unfold, possible even up to the end of his current term as president in 2012.
Any plans for Afghanistan, like Iraq – even a US exit – cannot rest on a military solution but needs to be more comprehensive. As in Iraq, Washington would have to invest in the foundation of a modern Afghan state with strong governing institutions, a justice system, a military and security services and trained police.
If the Americans fail to halt the insurgents' advance and apply comprehensive solutions to problems, Afghanistan could deteriorate into becoming Obama's Vietnam.