Opinion: Afghanistan war slipping

NEW YORK — After eight-and-a-half years of anything, one might be forgiven a temporary lapse in focus. But for the United States war effort in Afghanistan, now approaching its ninth year, last week’s political upheaval over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s off-color remarks looks less like a loss of focus than the reaction to a glimpse of 20-20 reality.

McChrystal entered the public stage with a crash, declaring with memorable frankness during his first round of interviews that the Taliban had gained the upper hand and that the military had about 12 months to turn it around before public support for the effort collapsed. “This is a period where people are really looking to see which way this is going to go," the general told the Wall Street Journal last August. "It's the critical and decisive moment."

It’s now 11 months later, and McChrystal is gone, a victim not of the Taliban nor their Al Qaeda allies, but of his own loss of political perspective and lack of diplomacy. On Wednesday, Gen. David Petraeus was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the new Afghan war commander.

Meanwhile, July 1 marks the start of the 12-month countdown to President Barack Obama’s deadline for starting a U.S. withdrawal. The administration has fudged the date repeatedly and denies July 2011 is a hard and fast deadline, but none of this recent upheaval gives the impression of a campaign going well.

Washington’s focus on political posturing obscures the fact that an actual war in Afghanistan rolls on, most notably in the southwestern town of Marjah, where U.S. and allied forces remain under fire daily in spite of having “taken” the town in a sweep launched four months ago. With all the focus on how generals should “manage the media,” one might be forgiven for failing to notice, but June has been the bloodiest month for the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan yet, with 103 NATO IFOR troops killed (among them 61 Americans).

Marjah, you may remember, was to be the dress-rehearsal for a pivotal showdown with the Taliban in their stronghold, Kandahar. Preceded by much talk about the impending attack — a breach of battlefield secrecy meant to give civilians time to clear out — this was McChrystal’s initial chance to apply the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, a strategy that emphasizes winning support from Afghan civilians and rooting out the Taliban with carefully applied force and a complementary surge of Afghan army, police and bureaucratic numbers into the vacuum.

The battle has proven tougher than expected — and that has caused NATO to put off the Kandahar offensive, which was to have begun in July, until the fall at least. The Taliban’s ruthless tactics in Marjah — assassinations, beheadings and death threats to anyone who collaborates with the newly installed Afghan authorities — certainly account for part of the trouble. This has made it very difficult for the Afghan army and police, already suspect thanks to the country’s endemic corruption, to wield authority and establish trust with the locals.

But Obama’s decision to promise the start of a withdrawal in 2011 and his administration’s insistence that this gives NATO forces time to turn the war around have also impaired progress. Of course, the withdrawal pledge is laden with the usual Washington double-talk: “conditions-based” is the latest construction cited over the weekend by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Practically speaking, that means the president could simply declare conditions unsatisfactory and delay the start of a withdrawal as long as he likes.

But that is not how NATO allies read it (the Dutch and the Poles have announced their own withdrawals in 2011, and even Britain is hinting heavily its forces — by far the second largest complement — may follow).

That’s not how Afghan President Hamid Karzai reads “conditions-based,” either. Since the deadline’s announcement, perhaps with an eye on plummeting levels of U.S. public support for the war, his aides have increased efforts to reach an accommodation with some of the Taliban, angering Washington.

That’s also not how average Afghans are likely to see it, either. Imagine yourself a resident of Marjah being pressed to take a job with the local Afghan police. Even if you do survive the decision today, what happens when the foreigners leave? If Karzai is seeking a deal, what hope can you have?

Remember, Marjah was only supposed to be a demonstration project — a proving-ground for the new counterinsurgency strategy written (in part) by Petreaus in 2006, tested and revised according to the lessons of Iraq, and now being implemented in Afghanistan. The big show is Kandahar, the southeastern region of Afghanistan and the city Osama bin Laden called home in September 2001.

Kandahar, by and large, is in the hands of the Taliban at the moment. American forces, among them the 30,000 additional troops Obama approved for Afghanistan on McChrystal’s request last year, are still arriving in Kandahar province and some fighting in outlying regions has begun.

But progress there, as in Marjah, has been slow. Among other things, the Afghan troops and police meant to follow NATO in simply don’t exist (and those which do need more training).

It would not be exaggerating to say that the battle NATO is planning to take control of Kandahar is the linchpin of the war. Should the U.S.-led thrust fail and the Taliban hold, no amount of verbal obfuscation will convince Afghans, NATO allies or Americans that the war is winnable.

So the Battle of Kandahar, rashly pre-scheduled for July, has been delayed, and not a moment too soon given the stakes involved. For wherever you stand on the question of pulling out quickly or staying the course in Afghanistan, the last thing anyone outside the Taliban should want is to see Obama’s “conditions-based” withdrawal become an ignominious retreat.