Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Afghanistan war slipping

McChrystal aside, the critical battle for Afghanistan is playing out right now — and we’re not winning.

US Marine Capt William Hefty
U.S. Marine Capt. William Hefty from 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines waves to Marines to move on during a patrol in Marjah district, Helmand province, May 18, 2010. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

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.