October 12, 2009 - 12:00AM
How Barack Obama negotiates the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan may define his presidency. Anne Davies reports.
EIGHT American soldiers dead; perhaps 30 Afghan police captured. The Taliban raid on an isolated US outpost in Nuristan just over a week ago seemed to represent all that is wrong with America's conduct of war in Afghanistan. And it could not have come at a worse time for Barack Obama.
Here was an under-resourced US Army effort, a wily and brazen Taliban and a local population willing to conceal 300 insurgents until they were ready to charge from mosques and villages. The base's planned closure was delayed because the US Army could not provide the transport needed to shift it.
Then, all last week the Washington Post unpicked in excruciating detail for the Administration a similar catastrophe at a nearby base at Wanat last year, putting a face to the human toll by exploring the life and death of 24-year-old 1st Lieutenant Jonathan Brostrom in a similar Taliban raid. Told in part through the eyes of Brostrom's father, himself a military man, it was a tale of soldiers left in a poorly fortified, isolated outpost whose strategic purpose was unclear. Brostrom snr has moved from sorrow to anger as he learnt his son may have died for no purpose.
Eight years into the Afghan war and Obama faces a decision that could well mark out his presidency in the same way as Vietnam defined Lyndon Johnson's.
Obama held long sessions in the past two weeks with civilian and military advisers to recalibrate tactics in the conflict he himself identified as ''a war of necessity'' in defence of American security.
In late March the newly minted president announced plans to take the war in a new direction. ''We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.'' To achieve those goals, Obama said he would treat Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single theatre of war, a single problem, in recognition that the al-Qaeda leadership had simply moved over the mountainous border into the Pakistani tribal areas, and was now fomenting a rise of the neighbouring Taliban in an increasingly unstable nation.
Air strikes using Predator drones against suspected al-Qaeda hideouts were stepped up on both sides of the border in a bid to deal a lethal blow to the al-Qaeda leadership.
The president also opted to move to a classic counter-insurgency strategy - or COIN as the military calls it - which involves using military resources to secure and protect the local population from elements deemed to be ''bad'', while boosting efforts to improve governance, the local police forces and aid to win over the ''good'' parts of the population.
Obama effectively sacked the old commander, installing General Stanley McChrystal, a counter-insurgency expert, who had been head of the secretive ''black-ops'' team used for special operations such as hunting down Saddam Hussein. McChrystal was on the ground in Afghanistan by June with a brief to report back on how the strategy was developing and what else needed to be done.
But if the Administration was expecting early promising signs from the strategy switch - first trialled in Helmand province - they have been disappointed. Instead there have been more audacious attacks such as those in Nuristan, and more casualties - the coalition death toll is at 401 so far this year, compared with 131 in 2005. The series of high-profile drone strikes used early on have resulted in shocking civilian casualties and outrage in the local population.
In Iraq ''COIN'' meant a surge of troops to secure local populations while fostering the Sunni awakening, in which Sunni tribesmen were induced to evict al-Qaeda from their midst in return for money, aid and local power. Political reconciliation has been slower than the US would have liked, but there is a functioning central government with a degree of legitimacy among the population.
In Afghanistan the hope was that some Taliban, which is not a homogenous group, could be similarly induced to break with al-Qaeda. The election would take place, a government would be formed and there could be more progress towards training local police and army. In short the US would see progress towards some semblance of a stable state.
But no-one seems to have thought through how counter-insurgency would fit in a country that has never known effective central government and which has an economy about the size of Hobart's.
In August, when Obama told his audience of military service members that Afghanistan was a ''war of necessity'', he also told them that Afghanistan would not be won solely with military power and would require ''diplomacy and development and good governance''.
In the following weeks, he has referred to ''defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist allies'' and to building a stable Afghanistan. It is a mission that is sounding increasingly like an exercise in nation building.
Now Obama faces two new factors that mean he must rethink his strategy.
The first is McChrystal's assessment that the US strategy will likely fail unless there is a significantly more robust effort, including more troops and more effort at governance. McChrystal has never put a figure on it publicly, although 40,000 more troops seems to have gained currency in the media. The second intervening event is the allegation of massive fraud in the Afghan election, raising real questions for the Administration about whether it can forge a counter-insurgency strategy that relies on the Karzai Government.
''Counter-insurgency generally works only when the domestic government resisting the insurgents enjoys the respect and support of most of the domestic population,'' says Jonathan Stevenson, professor of strategic studies at the US Naval War College.
George Will, one of America's leading conservative columnists, has also warned of the difficulty of creating a stable state. Quoting the military historian Max Hastings, he ominously warned a month ago that ''our'' Afghans, may prove no more viable than were ''our'' Vietnamese.
The Karzai Government, already under pressure for its tolerance of widespread corruption, may now prove untenable.
Peter Galbraith, the UN envoy responsible for overseeing the Afghan-run election, was sacked last week because of a rift with his boss Kai Eide over the extent of the fraud, which Galbraith says in some provinces resulted in four to 10 times the number of ballots being cast as there were eligible voters.
The independent election commission headed by Eide is still to rule on the allegations of fraud, but if the election stands, or even if it moves to the second round, there are serious issues about the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai.
Disillusionment with Karzai is perhaps one reason why Vice-President Joe Biden is now one of loudest advocates for narrowing the strategy in Afghanistan to a counter-terrorism mission rather than the broad counter-insurgency that McChrystal wants to run.
Once a prominent hawk for expanding the war effort in Afghanistan, Biden argues that it may not be possible to defeat the Taliban and stabilise Afghanistan at a reasonable cost - and with the discredited government. Instead he has been arguing for several months now that the US should narrow its military action to drone strikes and special forces aimed at top al-Qaeda operatives.
STEVENSON backs the Biden approach. ''The US has two strategic imperatives in the region; one is to contain and ultimately debilitate al-Qaeda, the other is to limit radicalisation in Pakistan, staving off the country's political disintegration and ensuring that a reasonably friendly Pakistani government remains in control and that the country's nuclear arsenal stays out of jihadist hands.''
Stevenson warns that a broad counter-insurgency effort, even if successful in the short term, might actually undermine that second objective of a stable Pakistan.
President Obama and his advisers spent last Wednesday's session on this very issue. The Pakistan Government - and more specifically the quasi-independent Pakistani Inter-services Intelligence agency - has had allegiances with the Taliban in the past, even though, right now, they appear to be co-operating with US efforts to drive the Taliban from the tribal border areas.
Stevenson says Pakistan could decide that it suits them to again support the Taliban in Afghanistan as a counterweight to India, which Pakistan still sees as its main security risk, far outweighing Islamic fundamentalism.
The second risk is that an increased US presence actually inflames Islamic tensions in the region. ''A larger American footprint might have collateral damage by fuelling anti-American sentiment in the region,'' says Stevenson.
And if a stable Pakistan is the more important strategically, does it make sense that for every $30 poured into Afghanistan, only $1 is spent on aid and military support in Pakistan itself?
Of course many others, including McChrystal, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, support a robust counter-insurgency strategy, arguing that Afghanistan has to be stabilised if the US wants to avoid it rapidly returning as a haven for al-Qaeda. But with US polls showing that 57 per cent of Americans now oppose the war, that means coming up with a strategy that allows the rapid training of an Afghan army and police force.
The current plan provides funds for 82,000 local security forces and about 56,000 of these actually turn up each day, says Mark Schneider, vice-president of the International Crisis Group. At a minimum it needs to be doubled to have any chance of policing the nation.
That inevitably means more trainers, mentors and a measure of stability in which to conduct ''the build part" of the ''clear, hold and build strategy''. In the short term that means more US troops as it seems unlikely that other allies - Australia included - will be willing to add to their military contributions.
But exactly what is the objective with the Taliban?
Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, says there also has to be a rethink on separating the insurgency from the population because the Taliban are Afghan natives and unlike the insurgent fighters in Iraq, they show a respect for the local population, who then protect them.
Dorronsoro argues that the defeat of the Taliban is not feasible and that the objective should be to build an Afghan partner that can fight for itself and contain the insurgency.
Does this serve American interests? ''The Taliban do not threaten transnational attacks against Western countries, and al-Qaeda is based in Pakistan,'' he says.
But others argue that the Afghan state will not be strong enough to contain the Taliban and in any event it is nonsense to talk reconciliation with a group such as the Taliban.
Analyst Michael O'Hanlon, at the Brookings Institution, backs the McChrystal call for more troops so that the ''ink spots'' of safe territory, now widely interspersed, can join up.
The good news for the Obama Administration is that the Taliban are not yet in control of Afghanistan although they are ascendant in some areas.
Mark Schneider, of the International Crisis Group, which monitors security issues around the world, says the US still holds about 60 per cent of the country. But he warns that the coalition troops ''are on a cusp'' and that the next phase of the war will determine whether Afghanistan can be secured in the long term.
Anne Davies is United States correspondent.
This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/world/mirror-image-20091011-gscs.html