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Column on Afghanistan in the US election campaign

03 Eylül 2012 Pazartesi

Perhaps Senator John McCain thought he was doing Mitt Romney a favor when, in his Republican National Convention speech, when charged that "by committing to withdraw Afghanistan, the President [Obama] has... emboldened our enemies." Or maybe the aging hawk was simply sounding an anguished cry at the diminution of American power. After all, Romney has embraced the very Afghanistan withdrawal timetable for which McCain was accusing Obama of fecklessness. That's one reason you won't hear much on the presidential campaign trail about Afghanistan the longest war in America's history, where 2,000 American troops have died and 100,000 continue to fight. The other is that American voters like their candidates to project optimism, and nobody would believe them if they promised victory or a happy ending in Afghanistan.

Opinion polls routinely find most Americans opposed to staying in Afghanistan, which may be why the bipartisan consensus envisages most U.S. troops coming home by the end of 2014 after handing security responsibility to the Afghan forces whose training and mentoring is becoming the mission's prime focus. That's an acknowledgement that the Taliban won't be defeated by the time the U.S. leaves, and it takes a leap of faith to envisage Afghan security forces finding the political will to fight the Taliban on behalf of a widely discredited Afghan regime once the U.S. leaves. The outlook was grim even before the emergence of what the U.S. military calls the "systemic problem" of "insider attacks", when uniformed Afghans turning their weapons on their U.S. and NATO mentors. At least 43 U.S. and NATO soldiers have been deliberately killed by Afghan security personnel in the course of 2012, 15 in August alone. And such attacks are only reported when Western personnel are killed, not when they're merely wounded.

And the vulnerability of Western troops will actually increase in the coming months, as the training focus requires that smaller groups of U.S. and NATO troops are embedded in Afghan units. Recognizing the problem as more than an occasional aberration, the U.S. military now assigns some troops as "guardian angels" to protect others the very Afghans they're training.

The "insider attacks" are a stark rebuke of the flawed assumptions of the war itself, and of the exit strategy indeed, the U.S. military estimates that only one in four such incidents is the work of Taliban infiltration, meaning there's a widespread hostility towards Western troops even among the non-Taliban Afghan population. And the trend raises further doubts over whether the Afghan security forces are going to remain intact to fight the Taliban once the U.S. leaves. The unspoken hope, of course, is that there'll be a peace agreement with the Taliban before 2014, but the recognition that the U.S. plans to leave regardless doesn't give it much leverage to demand concessions the insurgents. And the movement's long-time backers in Pakistan's security establishment are unlikely to press the Taliban into talks unless Pakistan's interests in a future regime in Kabul are accommodated.

As things stand, the U.S. will leave Afghanistan locked in the throes of the same civil war that was underway when it first invaded in late 2001, albeit with the scoreboard having been reversed:  The Taliban is now the insurgent force, while its erstwhile enemies, the Northern Alliance, form the basis of the regime in Kabul. But prospects for maintaining that balance will depend on the Afghan forces trained, equipped and funded by the  U.S. and other international donors for the foreseeable future. Their numbers are far bigger than what Kabul could sustain on its own. Indeed, their current number of around 400,000 is to be cut back to 230,000 by 2014, for fiscal reasons although that change raises further security doubts. But the performance of the Afghan forces is less a question of training, than it is a question of their political motivation to fight a question over which Washington has little influence, and which may be answered by an ethnic fracturing along the lines of the pre-2001 civil war.

Even in the best-case scenario, the best the Afghan security forces could achieve would be to hold most of the ground currently held by NATO forces. But that would take a sustained financial commitment Western donors, whose pledges to fund the Afghan forces through 2014 may not survive more than a couple of years. As in Vietnam, the US is preparing its exit Afghanistan telling itself that its allies will hold things ther, but knowing that they probably won't. No wonder, then, that it's not a winning electoral campaign issue.