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A fateful decision for the land that will pay the greatest price on a troop increase.
KABUL, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama’s announcement on troop strength will be just as eagerly awaited in Kabul as it will be in Washington, D.C., but the stakes are very different here.
Capitol Hill politicos will debate the pros and cons while calculating the partisan benefits of their position; Afghans are trying to figure out which option gives them the best chance of staying alive.
More troops mean more fighting, with more civilian casualties. This is the unfortunate “mathematics of death” pointed out in an earlier March interview by Brigadier General Richard Blanchette, who was spokesman for NATO in Afghanistan at the time.
U.S. and Afghan military analysts seem to agree that a staged withdrawal of U.S. troops would almost certainly mean a return to civil war, as newly empowered “warlords,” backed by American money and might, gear up for battle with their long-time foe, the Taliban.
It is an unenviable dilemma, both for Obama, who has to sell his choice to an increasingly skeptical American public, and for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is trying to hold his fragile country together.
Afghans are historically allergic to foreign military presence, as witnessed by centuries of history. This latest engagement bears little difference to previous incursions in the Afghan mind, despite rhetoric emphasizing “democracy” and “progress.” Given their recent fraud-stained presidential elections, Afghans are fast developing an aversion to democracy itself, which many see as a rather cruel trick being played on them by a cynical international community and a local puppet regime.
NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal’s new counter-insurgency strategy, which puts protection of the civilian population center stage, relies on the assumption that those very civilians support the Taliban only out of fear. If the local population can be convinced that their government, backed by the international community, will help and protect them, they will cease to provide shelter to the insurgents. Then the military can mop up the opposition and commence the job of helping the locals to develop a stable, productive society.
It sounds good on paper, but begins to fall apart almost as soon as boots hit the ground.
In much of southern Afghanistan, where the bulk of the new troops will be deployed, the Taliban dominates not only through outright intimidation, but perhaps more often because people have no faith in the central government and actively hate the foreign military presence. In most cases, they are turning to the Taliban as the best of a very bad set of choices.
At the end of the day, Afghans are a pragmatic lot; if the troops can rout the insurgents, deliver massive aid, bully the central government into a less corrupt and more responsive pose, they will tolerate their presence. The enthusiasm and hope with which U.S. troops were welcomed in 2001 is testimony to this attitude. The problem is that eight years of non-performance have made the Afghans wary of foreign promises. And Obama’s emphasis on an “exit strategy” is likely to reinforce their cynicism.
The famous Taliban dictum “you have the clocks, we have the time” is quite understandable to a population that senses that the U.S. and their faltering allies may not be around to protect them in one, five or 10 years’ time. The Taliban, on the other hand, aren’t going anywhere.