Thursday, October 21, 2010

Conflicting signals out of Afghanistan

As the date for Obama's December reassessment of the Afghan operation approaches, I can't help but be stunned by the conflicting reports about the situation there, and fearful about what it may portend.

Today, the NYT's Carlotta Gall has an almost breathlessly reported piece about how "coalition forces" are routing the Taliban in the ongoing Kandahar operation.  Gall reported earlier this week that this operation is a big test of the Afghan military's effectiveness in dealing with security threats.  Now, she asserts, the operation is meeting great success, due in no small part to an extremely effective "new" rocket system that, she reports, is accurate to within a meter, and that has forced many Taliban back over the border into Pakistan.  But, on the other hand, Derrick Crowe (who accuses Gall of being a war stenographer for the US military command in Afghanistan - and her report does indeed  rely heavily on US military spokesmen's statements) reminds us that this is the same rocket system that was used months ago in the Marja campaign, but had to be taken out of service after US Marines killed a bunch of civilians with it.  Who ya gonna believe?  At this point the jury is still out, but I have to remember that Petraeus wants to put news of success out there, to demoralize the Taliban, ratchet up good feelings about his operation - and his leadership of it, and, quite possibly, to help make the case for prolonging the US adventure there well beyond Obama's stated July 2011 date for starting a withdrawal.

All of this may provide some context for another development: Afghan president Hamid Karzai's decision to kick out of Afghanistan all private security contractors.  According to the CSM, their operations were seriously threatening the US military effort.  But the WaPo's Rajiv Chandrasekaran now reports that because of Karzai's decision, US-led reconstruction projects are closing down because their leader simply refuse to continue their operations without adequate security to protect them.

And that, in turn, undercuts the entire counter-insurgency strategy favored by Petraeus:
Programs to assist Afghan farmers and improve local government, which are vital to the overall U.S. effort to stabilize the volatile southern and eastern parts of the country, are among those that will be affected, the officials said.

The consequences of the ban on development firms employing private guards "will be catastrophic," said one U.S. official involved in the issue. "If these projects grind to a halt, we might as well go home. They are essential to the counterinsurgency strategy."

Another U.S. official said the ban would affect about $1.5 billion in ongoing reconstruction work. More than 20,000 Afghans will lose jobs in road-building and energy projects alone, the official said. . . .

The ban "also applies to private contractors who guard supply convoys for the military bearing food, fuel and other essential supplies, as well as to international banks and other private entities whose services support reconstruction work."

The Afghan government wants development workers and their projects to be guarded by police officers and soldiers, a goal that diplomats and aid workers say is unrealistic because the local government security forces are corrupt, ill-trained and not numerous enough to do the job. The development firms have also said they would be unable to insure their employees - a key prerequisite for operations in a war zone - if they are unable to employ private guards. . . .

Of particular concern to U.S. and NATO military officials is the effect of a shutdown on counterinsurgency operations in Kandahar province, where USAID's agriculture and governance programs are supposed to be implemented immediately after U.S. Army units clear areas of insurgents.

"This is the soft power that works hand in hand with the military's hard power," another development executive said. "You can't do counterinsurgency without these programs."

Something's gotta give.  

Meanwhile, the Financial Times notes the attention that Petraeus and the Pentagon are directing to a claimed uptick in contacts between the Karzai government and Taliban leaders - contacts that supposedly are evidence that the coalition's new tactics of pounding the be-jeezus out of the Taliban are working.  But the FT notes: 

. . . sceptics argue the US has an interest in publicising even the most tentative of contacts to provide a more optimistic narrative around the unpopular war ahead of a Nato summit next month and a White House review in December.  There is still little confidence in Kabul that the strands of secret negotiations and exploratory ­dialogue can coalesce into a peace process. . . .

There are also questions over how far a US offensive in Kandahar province, the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace, will succeed in convincing the Taliban that it must negotiate. In an indicator of the intensity of the fighting, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the number of patients admitted with gunshot or blast wounds to a hospital it supports in Kandahar has hit almost 1,000 in August and September compared with about 500 last year.

Reports from Kandahar suggest many fighters have retreated into havens in Pakistan. Even US officials have acknowledged that Mr Obama’s stated intention to start withdrawing US forces in July next year has led some Taliban hard-liners to believe they can outlast the west. Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador, dismissed the idea that Mr Omar would negotiate with the Afghan government as “comical”.

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