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BOSTON — This week the Obama administration is expected to release its long-awaited, much-anticipated policy review in Afghanistan. The document will spell out the game plan in what is all-too-simplistically being called "the surge" of 17,000 additional troops in Afghanistan.
This document is critically important — events are swirling right now in Afghanistan and Pakistan in some perilous but also potentially productive ways.
As the New York Times reported today, a senior Taliban leader responsible for numerous roadside bombings and suicide attacks against NATO forces has been killed, along with nine other insurgent fighters. The article quoted NATO officials as saying that Maulawi Hassan, described as a well-known Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan, was killed in an attack Saturday on his compound near Kajaki, in Helmand Province.
But there were also conflicting accounts about a U.S. offensive in the area of Kunduz, near the Aghanistan-Tajikistan border in which five militants were killed and four were captured. Local officials claim that the house that was raided belonged to the mayor and that those who were killed are not militants.
So right there is the challenge: How to carry out successful operations without killing innocents and thereby alienating the village further. That's the struggle in Afghanistan.
The key aspect to look for in the Obama administration's policy review will be precisely this: How will the U.S. and NATO manage to make inroads into Afghanistan's 40,000 villages and parse through which of them have militant Taliban fighters aligned with Al Qaeda that need to be defeated, and which have elements made up of the so-called "reconcilables."
It was General David Petraeus who coined the term "reconcilables" in Iraq. In Iraq, they were the Sunni insurgents who Petraeus and his troops managed to separate from Al Qaeda in Iraq and then convince them that coming over to the U.S. side to rid Baghdad and elsewhere of the foreign terrorists was not only wise politically, but rewarding financially. Yes, they were bought off, frankly, both intellectually and with cold, hard cash.
Nothing wrong with that, if you ask most counter-insurgency experts. That's how it works on the ground. From the best I could see as a reporter on the ground in Iraq last year, the "surge" strategy succeeded in important ways in Iraq. Petraeus has a better understanding of effective counter-insurgency campaigns than any other American official. He is to be trusted in this realm. But this turning point in his leadership — he is now the chief of Central Command — is the ultimate test of his ability to read history, to understand that Afghanistan is not Iraq, and to put together a plan that embraces that complexity.
President Obama seems to understand this well. Earlier this month in a briefing on Air Force One, he put it this way:
“The situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex. You have a less governed region, a history of fierce independence among tribes. Those tribes are multiple and sometimes operate at cross purposes, and so figuring all that out is going to be much more of a challenge.”
As the Obama administration policy on Afghanistan begins to take shape, Sen. John McCain isn't missing the chance to beat it up. What's surprising about this predictable partisan split is the forum in which he chose to state it. While in Brussels, McCain trashed what he called Obama's and the NATO alliance's "minimalist" approach. In an address at Brussels Forum, McCain said the Obama administration approach was "dangerously wrong" and that "leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should reject it."
Well, so much for the old axiom that criticism of American foreign policy, particularly in times of war, "ends at the water's edge."