Saturday, October 17, 2009

Afghanistan I

The pass of Salang, approximately 3800 meters ...Image via Wikipedia

US involvement in Afghanistan recently passed its eighth anniversary. As President Obama has said, this was not a war of choice for the US. The question is, what has it become and where is the US going.

Briefly, in 2001 when the US invasion began, the goal was to destroy safe havens for terrorists which were under the protection of the ruling Taliban. The Taliban were targeted too since their rule had facilitated al Qaida training camps and they refused to turn over Osama bin Laden claiming he was a guest. The Bush administration publicly made the mission one of destroying the Taliban and capturing or killing bin Laden. Neither goal, obviously was met while the mission drifted until the Bush administration clearly abandoned the search for the man behind the death of 3,000 American, British, Iranian, French and other nationalities at the World Trade Center.

The Taliban collapsed outwardly rather quickly, being unable to challenge US and US supported troops in the field. Having utter control in the air, the US and its Afghan allies rapidly rolled up territory and simply drove into Kabul. What happened next was a series of misplaced priorities and actions.

First, US strategy relied on high altitude bombing which resulted in high civilian casualty counts. Not the way to win over the population to the cause. Small scale anti-terrorist operations may have been more effective and resulted in fewer civilian deaths while offering a better chance of capturing or killing the most wanted criminal - up to that point - for the US. The Bush administration then handed over power to the military warlords and Islamisists who had support the US campaign.

Even when Karzai came to power and tried to curb the power of the warlords, the US continued its support because of the perceived necessity of using them to root out al Qaida and Taliban elements. Unfortunately as well, the US did not seek to internationalize the effort by asking for European - and especially troops from Muslim countries - to join as part of a coalition at that time.

Without an effort to build security beyond Kabul, the stage was set for a Taliban resurgence - which began three years ago as the effects of the war of choice in Iraq sucked down US troops, attention and treasury. By 2005 the US poured in half a trillion dollars into Iraq and during the previous two years slashed reconstruction aid to the Karzai government by 30%. By 2005, even the aid provided was not going to the Afghan people (and those of us in the development business know exactly how US foreign aid operates). Action Aid estimated at the time that only 14% of all aid goes to real development project. I know some of the people who were in Afghanistan - the 50% of development aid funding that went to these dubiously qualified consultants to be spent on questionable US products was a joke. At that time Karzai was justified in his harsh criticism of all foreign aid - and especially that from the US. Karzai was fiercely critical of the Bush policies even in 2005. Indeed, the US spent more on bombing Afghanistan than rebuilding it.

The failures that were self-evident in 2005 and widely discussed, except as is ever the case to ardent supporters of Bush and Cheney and the neo-con leadership, were largely the result of the diversion of resources to Iraq. An Afghanistan policy review took place in 2005 and progress there was widely praised by the Bush administration. Yet, the Afghanistan operation remained an unfinished effort, faded from the ever vigilant US media. The focus in Afghanistan was completely lost after the Tora Bora operation that failed to capture or kill the primary target of the US, Osama bin Laden. Then, specialized elements of the US Army assigned to track him down were withdrawn in 2002 for the preparations against Iraq.

The Obama administration has said that it has completed its deliberations on a policy direction for the US in Afghanistan which will also determine the number of "surge" troops demanded by General McChrystal. Where and how the US directs its efforts at this point is critical. This administration needs to get it right and not follow the knee jerk crazies in the Republican Limbaugh Party - who, by the way, don't serve in any capacity in Afghanistan but who are very willing and eager to watch other peoples' children die.

The next post will discuss some myths that prevail about Afghanistan and posit a way forward - if the administration does not make the post moot. I will also review the larger picture of the changed foreign policy strategy of the Obama administration and the effect on Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran.
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