Friday, January 29, 2010

The Approaching Battle over Afghanistan?

Tony Karon's latest Time piece argues pretty persuasively that the US no longer has (if it indeed ever had) any real hope of "victory" in Afghanistan - the Taliban are too embedded and widespread to be defeated, and Pakistan is in no mood or condition to go after the Afghan Taliban who are inside their borders.  Rather, we're on our way to, at best, some kind of negotiated settlement that will leave much of the Taliban in place, with a major role in the Afghan government.

The key tension now seems to be the one between reconciliation and reintegration.  The US is all for the latter: providing jobs and economic assistance, as well as political reintegration, to lower-level Taliban whose principal reason for joining up may have been the wages; but excluding from the deal the upper management, as it were, and especially those who might have any links to al-Qaeda.

But in his recent speech at the London conference on the situation, Afghan president Hamid Karzai stunned the attendees by offering the possibility of actual reconciliation, which entails a much closer embrace of the Taliban within the Afghan body-politic.  And at this point, as this LA Times report shows, it's not at all clear that the US is ready to buy into that unless the Taliban agree to certain conditions - "renouncing violence, following the Afghan Constitution and, perhaps most important, agreeing to not help the Al Qaeda extremists whose presence in Afghanistan started the long war."  And there's also justifiable concern that women will suffer if the Taliban are allowed back into the government.

The battle I see approaching is one in the halls of Congress, and US public opinion.  I'll be very surprised if the McCain-Graham-Lieberman clique of "no victory, no honor" will accept any possibility of reconciliation with the Taliban unless it's done from a position of US military superiority that allows the US to impose terms, rather than negotiate them with the Taliban.  Then the question becomes: Can the US+NATO achieve that level of superiority?  Seems to me that could be possible only (1) at tremendous cost of treasure and lives (both US and Afghan) and (2) if the US can win the hearts and minds battle.

And on that score, the Taliban leadership may see themselves as currently having the upper hand.  No, the Taliban are not universally loved in Afghanistan, but neither is Karzai's corrupt government.  And after going on 9 years, many Afghans are fed up with the US presence - and our guys keep giving them reason to get even angrier.  The latest incident has angered a lot of Afghans:
A gunner in a U.S. military convoy shot and killed a local imam as he was driving his car here Thursday morning, prompting outrage among residents and an apology from coalition forces. . . .
Residents expressed outrage over the shooting of a man they described as a respected religious leader who had spent the past three months in Kabul teaching at an Islamic school and preaching at the Marqazi Jumad mosque.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Anand Gopal's recent piece uncovers an ongoing story that has received very little coverage here, but that many Afghans are enraged and humiliated by: the detention and abuse of "suspects" rounded up by US forces, often Special Ops guys who raid villages at night, bust down doors, and haul away men on the tiniest suspicion of evil-doing. ( And when you add to that humiliation the insult that those same night-raiders may be equipped with weapons sporting those "Jesus gunsights" . . . .).

Bottom line: The US will never be able to come home from Afghanistan "victorious" - unless, of course, our government and media truth-spinners find a way to re-define "victory"  to include a negotiated settlement with a still-powerful Taliban. 

Again, it brings to mind Gen. Petraeus' question about Iraq: "Tell me how this ends."  It also, for me, raises a version of the question the then Navy officer John Kerry asked about the Vietnam War: "Who wants to be the last man killed in an unwinnable war?"

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