Wars tend to consume presidencies and this is now Obama's war,” said former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, Wednesday, Dec. 2, in one of the more understated evaluations of the plan for the war in Afghanistan which President Barack Obama unveiled in a speech Tuesday night along with a 30,000-troop surge.
Riedel's comment was better informed than most; because he oversaw Obama's last review of US strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in March.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military experts find in the new policy no directives for the US army to dominate the conflict – least of all, fight to win. Its sights are confined to holding the line against the further deterioration of the military balance in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to shaping the endgame.
For Obama, they say, the new strategy is a brave political gamble; for the US army, it is a big, dangerous game against the odds, because its straitened time frame will make it hard to achieve results.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs explained the narrow time frame and the need for speed of action:
“They're going to get in sooner (a reinforcement of 9,000 Marines will already be deployed this month). Instead of being spread out over almost two years, this will be spread out over a much shorter period of time to deliver a punch quickly,” he said.
“We're going to accelerate going after al Qaeda and its extremist allies. We're going to accelerate the training of an Afghan security force, the police and an army because we want to as quickly as possible transition the security of the Afghan people over to those national security forces.”
Afghan government troops control one out of 34 provinces
The additional 30,000 soldiers will start going in before the end of December and start withdrawing in July 2011. This gives the US commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal 18 months in total to show real progress toward an objective that eluded the combined US and allied forces for eight years. But the president may hold the military to his set time frame because in mid-2011 he kicks off his campaign for re-election. The war is increasingly unpopular and he will want to show the voting public that his strategy has achieved enough progress to get a drawdown in train fairly quickly.
But given the current military circumstances, this may not be possible. At best, in the time allowed, the US-led forces may manage to fix and secure their lines of control in a way that heads off Taliban's expansion to new parts of the country and weakens their grip on the areas they dominate. But degrading the Taliban to the point where it ceases to threaten government stability in Kabul and cannot overwhelm the national Afghan army is not attainable in the allotted time; neither is the training of enough Afghan national forces for them to be ready for the transition of security in all parts of Afghanistan from NATO contingents.
Today, Afghan units control security in just one large province out of thirty-four, while the Taliban holds sway in more than a dozen. However rapidly their training goes forward, there is not enough time to prepare them to assume control of more than five to eight additional provinces, less than half of the country.
Training is not the only problem; the number of service sign-ups has been dropping for months and, furthermore, roughly a third of the recruits who do sign up disappear with their side-arms shortly after they are assigned to duty. Some – though not all – defect to the Taliban; others return home to their families and tribes and go to work in the drug industry. It is therefore impossible to reliably estimate how many troops will be available to the Afghanistan government by the designated deadline for the US military departure.
Vanishing recruits, absconding tribal chiefs
The tactic of enlisting local tribes and clans which succeeded in Iraq is proving less applicable in Afghanistan.
The US command developed a plan to “re-recruit” deserters by signing pacts with large clans and tribes binding them to defending their territories from the Taliban, withdrawing their members from insurgent ranks and barring the use of their lands as staging posts against US-led forces.
Only last month, US Congress allocated $1.3 billion for this project, impressed by the way drawing Sunni tribal chiefs into the conflict helped the US troop surge turn the Iraq war around.
However, Afghanistan's tribal makeup and customs are nothing like those of the Sunni tribes of Iraq. The drug barons who work hand in glove with the Taliban can always top American cash offers for manpower. And Afghan tribal chiefs' code of conduct is quite different from their opposite numbers in Iraq, whose word is their bond and who honor their commitments to the letter. In Afghanistan, anyone able to get money out of the Americans and then abscond is respected for his smartness in outwitting the invader.
If quiet negotiations with the Taliban are one of the Obama administration's goals, then the strict deadline for the military to perform is counter-productive.
According to some sources in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US embarked on secret talks for ending the war with some Taliban factions via Saudi and Pakistani intermediaries two weeks before Obama's presentation of his new policy. It is also possible that the two intermediaries initiated this dialogue on their own with a view to handing over to Washington if they made any progress. The tight deadline for ending the US military presence in Afghanistan has pulled the rug out from under any such negotiating initiatives.
Taliban: Why should we deal?
This week, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, the Emir of Hizb-e-Islami in Afghanistan and one of the few Afghan militia chiefs not dependent on the Taliban, rejected the notion of negotiations out of hand. He called on “all sides in the country” to get together and form an acceptable interim government, because “the defeat of the United States in Afghanistan is near.”
He echoed the Afghan Taliban chief who last week said he saw no point in talks. The US and its allies “face inevitable defeat,” Mullah Omar said “… because the logic of using force today has lost its effect, and you cannot control the Afghani people through the monetary force or your satanic trickery.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources in Afghanistan report that the most bizarre outcome of the new Obama strategy is that all parties to the conflict are crossing off the days on their calendars up until the deadlines the US president outlined in his West Point speech Tuesday, Dec. 1. The Taliban and al Qaeda are counting off the days up to the American troops exit and their takeover of Afghanistan, while the US commanders are conscious that each page they tear off signifies one day less for their mission.
Bruce Riedel makes no bones about the consequences of mission failure:
“The stakes are enormous for Obama: the future of NATO, the risk of another 9/11, the danger of nuclear war in south Asia and the cost of sustaining and succeeding in an increasingly unpopular war.”