The commander of allied forces in Afghanistan said the war effort there is succeeding as Afghan forces assume more responsibility for their nation’s security and bear a greater burden of losses to the Taliban.
Insurgent attacks “are increasingly localized, affecting an ever-shrinking proportion of the Afghan population,” U.S. Marine General John Allen told reporters yesterday by satellite from Kabul. He praised expanded, better-trained Afghan security forces, notwithstanding so-called green-on-blue attacks by Afghans against their U.S. and coalition partners.
While Allen and top administration officials herald progress in Afghanistan, other U.S. and NATO officials say the insider attacks on coalition forces are symptomatic of deeper challenges the U.S. and its allies face in their effort to withdraw almost all allied combat forces and turn over security to the Afghans by the end of 2014.
“A lot of the prognosis and analysis has been turning around, ‘Can we or can’t we make the transition in 2014?’” Stephen Biddle, a professor at George Washington University in Washington, said in an interview. That question, he said, is “ultimately short-sighted” because the more important issue is “how we get from 2014 to the end of the war.”
Biddle said a central problem of the Obama administration’s Afghan policy has been its focus on handing responsibility to Afghan security forces without paying equal attention to weak governance, official corruption and rivalries among ethnic groups and factions.
When President Barack Obama announced plans in December 2009 for a troop surge to be followed by a gradual drawdown starting two years later, the idea was to put the war “on a glide path to success in a relatively short time, knock the stuffing out of the insurgency,” and hand off an easier task to Afghan forces, said Biddle, who helped assess conditions in Afghanistan in 2009 for then-U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal when he led U.S. and NATO forces there.
Instead, the insurgents dug in, announcing that they’d wait out the U.S. withdrawal, and attempts to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have faltered. U.S. allies have begun pulling out -- troops from Canada and the Netherlands have left, and forces from France and New Zealand are due to withdraw next.
Although the U.S. economy remains the dominant political issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, creating the impression that the war is reaching a successful conclusion has assumed greater importance in the White House as the November election draws near, said two U.S. officials involved in Afghan policy. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the media.
U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan have reached 2,091, according to Defense Department figures. About 70 percent of those casualties have occurred since Obama took office in 2009 and temporarily deployed an additional 33,000 troops seeking to squelch the insurgency.
The increase in attacks against North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces by Afghan military, police or civilians has raised concerns about the U.S. and allies’ willingness to keep training Afghans and funding the war. There have been 40 coalition deaths from insider attacks so far this year, compared with 35 in all of 2011, according to the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has blamed the insider attacks on efforts by neighboring Pakistan and Iran to undermine the U.S. and NATO’s partnership with Afghanistan. Allen said from Kabul that the attacks won’t derail the U.S. strategy or scare the U.S. into abandoning cooperation with Afghan forces.
Obama this week defended the training initiatives, saying that the U.S. military is stepping up counterintelligence, screening of Afghan trainees and U.S. force protection.
“In the long term,” Obama said, “we will see fewer U.S. casualties and coalition casualties by sticking to our transition plan and making sure that we’ve got the most effective Afghan security forces possible” after 2014.
Two U.S. intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said they think the spate of insider attacks reflects infiltration of Afghan forces by insurgents and support for the Taliban, as well as cultural clashes with U.S. soldiers and resentment of the almost 11-year American presence in Afghanistan.
The hostility, according to the two officials, as well as a State Department official who served in Afghanistan and also spoke on condition of anonymity, is rooted in frustration over perceived American support for what many Afghans consider an ineffective and corrupt Karzai government, raids that have killed innocent civilians, and U.S. military convoys and bases that are frequent reminders of foreign presence on Afghan soil.
The new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, James Cunningham, disputed that notion during a press briefing in Kabul last week, saying: “I haven’t seen any wave of Afghans questioning American motives or intentions in Afghanistan.”
Another Obama administration official in Washington who served in Afghanistan also rejected the idea that insider killings reflect wider anti-Americanism. Afghans want Americans to leave their country not because they hate the U.S., but because they want to be a sovereign nation, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Cultural misunderstandings between foreign troops and locals don’t help, said the official, adding that some minority groups want the U.S. to stay as a guarantor of their rights.
Said Jawad, a former Afghan ambassador to the U.S. under Karzai, cited polls showing Afghans have more positive views of Americans than citizens of other Muslim nations do.
Jawad said that a Loya Jirga council representing a cross-section of Afghan society voted by secret ballot for a strategic partnership agreement allowing a continued U.S. military presence after combat troops leave in 2014. The agreement was swiftly approved by the Afghan parliament, an impossibility “if there were real anti-U.S. sentiment,” Jawad said.
Corruption may be more at the root of problem, weakening the ability of Karzai’s government to deliver services and undermining Afghans’ trust of the U.S.-backed government, according to some analysts.
Graft also threatens military bases and resources after their transfer to Afghan control. In some cases, Afghan officers skim resources for local warlords, undermining morale among rank-and-file Afghan soldiers, Biddle said.
If corruption worsens, “it will make success impossible,” Biddle said. The last several commanders of coalition forces, he said, “put their priority on security and not on good governance,” which is essential to long-term stability.
Kenneth Katzman, an Afghanistan specialist at the Congressional Research Service, said the U.S. “could conceivably be working on the corruption issue for the next 10 years and it could still be a problem.” Ethnic rivalries fan incentives for graft, he said, with various factions stockpiling resources and weapons for a possible future power struggle.
U.S. officials acknowledge that corruption is a challenge to their efforts, though they say critics ignore the progress that’s been made.
A so-called civilian surge by the Obama administration brought specialists from U.S. agencies to help the Afghan government in an array of tasks, including probing corruption and training prosecutors and judges to punish the guilty, said another U.S. official involved in Afghan policy who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said the U.S. was encouraged that Karzai recently announced a long list of domestic priorities, including anti-corruption measures and electoral reform.
A greater challenge for the U.S. may be the stalled effort to promote reconciliation among the government and insurgent groups, including the Taliban.
Cunningham, in his Senate confirmation hearing last month in Washington, testified that for the first time in a decade, the Taliban “are debating and signaling an openness to negotiations.”
Still, efforts at peacemaking have been marred by the assassinations of senior Afghan officials by killers posing as peace envoys. Efforts to create a channel for talks with the Taliban through an office in Qatar failed in March, when the insurgents broke off negotiations over what they called an “erratic” U.S. stance toward a possible prisoner exchange.
Two U.S. diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Taliban is not a monolithic movement, and it’s hard to know who among the leadership may be open to reconciliation.
Another administration official said that while the reconciliation process is not dead, it has been put on hold. The U.S. has been clear about what the Taliban must accept to join talks -- including renouncing ties to al-Qaeda, disarming, and abiding by the Afghan constitution -- and is ready to resume discussions under those terms, the official said.
The Obama administration fundamentally understands that “the escape route” in Afghanistan is a negotiated settlement to end the conflict that creates a level of power-sharing and gives former insurgents a voice in government, Biddle said.
The dilemma is that by reducing the U.S. force presence gradually through 2014, “you lose your bargaining leverage with the Taliban,” he said.
An administration official who wasn’t authorized to be named said that, in any scenario, the U.S. has limited resources and strategic interests and would have to leave eventually. By signaling the planned drawdown, the U.S. spurred a sense of urgency in the Afghan government to build its own forces and capacity, the official said.
Other officials, though, say that signal had the opposite effect, telling the Taliban and neighboring states that American patience is limited and encouraging them to concentrate on battling for power after the U.S. departs.
The administration has sought to underscore a long-term commitment, with Obama flying to Afghanistan to sign a 10-year strategic partnership and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton going to Kabul to declare Afghanistan a major, non-NATO ally.
Andrew Exum, a former U.S. military officer who briefly advised McChrystal and former U.S. Army General David Petraeus, now the CIA director, when they were the top allied commanders in Afghanistan, said he thinks Afghans, including the Taliban, now understand that the U.S. isn’t rushing for the exits.
“It’s reasonable to expect that the U.S. and NATO are going to continue to support Afghans in intelligence, supply chains, close air support, Medevac, some degree of logistical support” -- areas of weakness for Afghan forces, said Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
Exum said criticism of Afghan security forces is also largely misplaced. For starters, NATO training has dramatically improved since 2009, he said.
Are Afghan forces “going to be equivalent to a NATO ally or the Lebanese or Iraqi military?” he said. “Probably not, but they don’t need to be. They just need to be slightly better than the Taliban.”