The Obama administration is struggling to confront a central reality of the Afghanistan war it inherited: More troops, more aid and a retooled strategy alone are not enough.
It wants to energize the effort with new ideas, too, and do it before American public patience runs out.
It’s a grim given that U.S. casualties are likely to increase in the months ahead as additional soldiers and Marines arrive to take on the Taliban in their southern strongholds. Already some prominent members of Congress, including from Obama’s party, are questioning whether Afghanistan is a lost cause.
That concern may explain, in part, the decision Monday to sack Gen. David McKiernan as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and replace him with an officer known for innovative action, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Pentagon chief Robert Gates said it was time for “new thinking and new approaches.”
Yet it seems unlikely the switching of commanders portends a new U.S. war strategy. Obama announced a revised plan just two months ago. Instead the administration is hoping that a military command shake-up will lead to a more effective implementation of the existing strategy, which is aimed at defeating al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan and preventing their return to either country.
William Fallon, the retired Navy admiral who was responsible for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and the broader Middle East in 2007-08, is optimistic that new leadership will make a difference.
“I have the highest confidence in his judgment,” Fallon said of McChrystal. “He gets it.”
The change at the top in Afghanistan won’t mean new marching orders for arriving Marines, said Lt. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, a U.S.-based Marine commander. However, Hejlik, too, suggested that McChrystal will do things differently.
“He really does understand that you’re not going to win the war by killing all the enemy. That’s just not going to work,” he said.
McKiernan recently described the war as “stalemated, at best” in the southern part of Afghanistan where the Taliban are strongest. For months he has called for an increase in U.S. forces, but during the Bush administration his requests went unmet as Iraq dominated the White House’s focus.
Obama entered the White House promising to make Afghanistan and Pakistan the higher priority, arguing that stopping al-Qaida from launching new attacks was of greater strategic importance than the task in Iraq. He also said he would “not blindly stay the course” in Afghanistan and would regularly review his approach. Since then the situation — militarily and politically — has arguably gotten worse.
The boldness of the insurgency was underscored Tuesday. Eleven Taliban suicide bombers struck government buildings in a daylong assault in the eastern city of Khost. The assault led to running gunbattles with U.S. and Afghan forces that killed 20 people and wounded three Americans.
At the heart of Obama’s approach to the war is his view, shared by senior commanders, that military power alone will not lead to success — and that stability in Afghanistan is not possible without stability in neighboring, nuclear-armed Pakistan, where the radical Taliban movement has been on the rise.
That means Obama will look to McChrystal to find more effective ways of linking military action with an accelerated effort to build workable Afghan government ministries, to expand and improve Afghan security forces, to promote Afghan reconciliation with more moderate elements of the Taliban, and to improve the U.S.-led coalition’s ability to overcome remarkably effective propaganda efforts by the Taliban and al-Qaida.
It also means that turning around the war in Afghanistan will require changes beyond Obama’s control – perhaps most importantly a more effective Pakistani government response to the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan.
Two months after announcing his new strategy, Obama has little to show for it, although the extra 21,000 troops he approved as reinforcements are only now beginning to arrive and there is the prospect of a further restructuring of the U.S.-NATO command in Afghanistan. Also, the new U.S. ambassador in Kabul, retired Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, just arrived in the capital last week.
The outlook is not bright. At a hearing Tuesday, Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, painted a grim picture, saying he was stunned by a lack of progress in Afghanistan, which he called a “black hole” with no bottom.
“It is just breathtaking, the amount of money, the American lives we’ve spent there, and you have a government that has control maybe to the outskirts of the capital,” Risch said.
The man to whom Risch was speaking, Richard Holbrooke, the veteran diplomat who is coordinating the administration’s policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan, responded that his own initial assessment was not much different. Holbrooke insisted, however, that the administration has a workable strategy and that dismantling the terrorist network that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 is too important not to press ahead.
Obama needs Congress to go along with the piece of his strategy that calls for providing billions more in aid to Pakistan with the aim of preventing a collapse into chaos that could spill over into Afghanistan. But it was evident from Holbrooke’s appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that some of the most skeptical and reluctant members of Congress are from Obama’s own party.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said he feared that adding U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan would only expand the trouble in Pakistan.
“You are absolutely correct that an additional amount of American troops, particularly if they are successful in (southern Afghanistan), could end up creating a pressure in Pakistan, which would add to the instability,” Holbrooke said. He said this would require closer coordination with the Pakistani government.
Another obstacle to progress in Afghanistan that has seemed beyond U.S. efforts to overcome is the recurrence of civilian casualties. It’s a problem that has undercut Afghan public support for the U.S. mission and assisted the Taliban in promoting the notion that the Afghanistan government is a U.S. puppet.
One more problem demanding an innovative solution.
Robert Burns has covered national security affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.