4:05pm

Fri December 10, 2010
Untamed Afghanistan: Wars, Past And Present

For Obama, A Mixed Report Card From Afghanistan

On a visit to Afghanistan this week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared progress is better than he expected, an upbeat assessment that comes as the Obama administration prepares to release its war strategy review later this month.

But other appraisals in advance of the administration's report -- including that of the independent International Crisis Group and the Pentagon's own recent report to Congress -- cast many doubts.

Even as the administration looks for a path out of the country, Afghans are quick to call the war in the country a long struggle that has only begun.

"The world community should know that they've been engaged in Afghanistan for nine years, but they have seriously, actually tried since the end of 2007," Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said last month. "And also they should realize that victory in such an unconventional warfare, it is not going to be very swift."

Wardak was speaking at a one-year anniversary celebration for the U.S.-led NATO training mission in Afghanistan, which he says is hitting recruitment targets for the first time.

Wardak praised President Obama's strategy but said he hopes enough time will be given for it to work. "Everybody should have learned the lesson," he said. "Usually history repeats itself, but in this case I hope it won't because everybody suffered after they disengaged from Afghanistan (in the 1990s.)"

U.S. Policy: Focusing On What Is Realistic

Afghanistan has become the signature foreign policy issue for Obama, despite the war's having started before he even entered national politics. Once Obama was in office, his Cabinet spent a full year of contentious debate before drafting a narrow set of priorities, which he unveiled to cadets at West Point last December.

"We will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan: We must deny al-Qaida a safe haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future," Obama told the military audience.

The president announced a surge of U.S. troops -- bringing the current total to about 100,000 -- to give the Afghan government time to step up to the task. Obama's original drawdown date of 2011 has now been explained as a gradual redeployment that will last until 2014.

It is not lost on Afghans that Washington isn't talking much about democracy-building, women's rights or combating Afghanistan's leviathan illegal narcotics trade.

The White House policy -- as leaked to The Washington Post's Bob Woodward in his book Obama's Wars -- adds that, "Given the profound problems of legitimacy and effectiveness with [the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai], we must focus on what is realistic."

Obama's review will note territory taken away from the insurgents directly as a result of the additional 32,000 troops, especially in southern provinces like Helmand and Kandahar. But at the same time, the Taliban has gained control in other parts of the country.

Afghans Outgunned, Underpaid

Afghan security forces are growing in number, but their leadership admits they have none of their own logistical capability -- no way to resupply troops without Americans help. Fewer soldiers are going AWOL, but on some of the worst battle fronts, there are still problems with no-shows.

"They didn't have good guns, helmet, body armor," says Massoud, a former translator with British soldiers in Helmand province's deadly district of Sangin. He asked not to give his full name.

A near-miss with a land mine persuaded Massoud to quit, and he says many Afghans leave the army because the pay is too low to motivate them.

"One day I asked one of the boys, and he says, 'I don't have enough money to pay for my son to go to the school. In that case, I can't fight. If they give me good money, I can fight good,' " Massoud recalls.

Afghan and American military commanders acknowledge that the complete picture of progress can't be measured until springtime. Many Taliban fighters have traditionally crossed the border in Pakistan during the harsh Afghan winter, and fighting generally subsides until the spring thaw opens up the mountain passes.

Profound Disappointment With U.S.

The collateral effects of the surge are already mounting, as refugees from the violence in the countryside crowd the slums of Kandahar.

"I lost my daughter and her husband and six of their children," says one farmer who asks not to give his name. He is from Kandahar's Zhari district, where American forces take credit for clearing out the Taliban for the first time in several years. The farmer says an American mortar landed on his house.

Civilian casualties continue to plague the U.S. war effort, and even though international and Afghan monitors blame the Taliban for most of them, Afghans have a higher expectation from the U.S.

"With all their technology," complains the farmer, "why can't they manage to tell insurgents from civilians?"

This sense of disappointment, after nearly a decade of American intervention, is nearly universal in Afghanistan. The dissatisfaction includes U.S. efforts to strengthen democracy.

In Kabul, candidates and voters are still protesting the Oct. 18 parliamentary elections. As with last year's presidential contest, charges of fraud, bribery and violent intimidation marred the vote.

"I hope it has alarmed the international community," says former legislator Daoud Sultanzoi, who lost his seat from Ghazni province after violence in his home district closed the polling stations.

"If we do not pay attention to fair representation in a country that is at war, the counterinsurgency efforts will take a turn to the wrong direction and that is our fear in a war-torn country," he says.

Good governance will figure in Obama's review, but that area gets the worst marks from Afghan and international monitors, with almost no improvement on corruption, from the presidential palace to the local traffic cops.

Talking With The Taliban, Pakistan

As for Obama's top priority -- denying a safe haven to al-Qaida -- Afghans point to the safe havens next door in Pakistan. A Pentagon report to Congress last month lamented no measurable progress at cutting the lines of support between Pakistan and the Afghan insurgency.

U.S. officials say they expect the Afghan war to end with a political settlement in any case, but that, too, revolves around Pakistan, according to Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir.

"I think more than the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, I think what is important is to reach an agreement with Pakistan," Mir says. "Ultimately, Pakistanis are deciding for the Taliban. And they have tremendous leverage over the Taliban. For example, the Taliban leadership live in Pakistan, their families live in Pakistan, training camps and everything is through Pakistan. So I think the ultimate discussion would be between the United States and Pakistan, rather than Mullah Omar and Karzai."

The Taliban has consistently denied American claims that talks are under way. In a huge embarrassment for Karzai and the U.S., one of the "Taliban leaders" they negotiated with this autumn turned out to be an impostor.

Afghan society and government are divided on how much common ground they can find with the Taliban. The former intelligence director for Karzai said a peace deal would more likely result in Talibanizing the democracy rather than democratizing the Taliban, especially since the younger generation of Taliban may be even more radical.

Hekmat Karzai, cousin of the president and head of a Kabul think tank, disagrees.

"I think Taliban have learned from their mistakes. We're talking about Taliban who were hanging televisions from trees, banning music, kites," Karzai says. "Now the same Taliban has a website in five languages which gets updated every four hours."

"If you listen to their rhetoric, they will be first to tell you that we made mistakes; we're not going to treat the population in the same manner. Afghans involved in this process will not allow that. It will not be a political process at any cost. Because if not, then you will have another constituency that will stand up either to the state or another group," he says.

Despite Criticism, Afghanistan Still Needs U.S.

But the Obama administration's December review may not delve too far into that subject: Despite the exhaustive evaluations being made, the White House has already put out signals that this review will not result in any policy changes.

And for all their criticisms, few Afghans outside the Taliban movement seem to be pushing for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan in the state it is today, says Sultanzoi, the former parliamentarian.

"I love Americans. They're wonderful people. Please, Americans, listen to my plea," he says as he marches in a noisy but peaceful protest against the parliamentary election results.

"If you want to leave Afghanistan the way we are, Afghanistan will not leave you," says Sultanzoi. "Afghanistan will be the bastion of instability, will be the nest for disturbance and extremism, Afghanistan will come and knock on your doors." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.