obama's war
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Can We Win This?

Karl Eikenberry U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan

Karl. W. Eikenberry

Are we losing the war?

No. I'd say that at this stage we're not losing the war, but I would say that we're not winning the war in parts of Afghanistan as well. Right now here, in August 2009, I see the outlines of what could be success in parts of Afghanistan, where we're marshalling sufficient military resources matched with a coherent strategy, matched with the necessary civilian and developmental resources. I can see the outlines of what could be progress and eventual success. Too early to tell.

So we're not losing the war, but we're not winning it in certain parts of the country?


Lt. Col. John Nagl (Ret.) Fmr. Adviser to Gen. Petraeus

I believe that with a concerted advisory effort inside the Afghan ministries at the national level, at the provincial level, the district level, we can improve governance in Afghanistan. We can move the needle in the right direction. ...

There are things I can't guarantee. I can't guarantee that the Pakistani military, the Pakistani government continues to conduct counterinsurgency reasonably effectively on its side of the border. It's moving in the right direction. The trend lines are positive for us. We've had some very big successes recently and some very promising signs of cooperation -- not as much as I'd like to see; I'm not being a Pollyanna here. But that has to continue.

By classic counterinsurgency measures, how many troops do we need?

By classic counterinsurgency measures, success in Afghanistan would require 600,000 counterinsurgents. We're well below half that right now. So the current international forces on the ground, after a huge increase in American forces in 2009, which is not yet complete -- we're at about 100,000 internationals. We've got about 80,000 Afghan army, we've got about 60,000 Afghan police, for a total of 250,000 counterinsurgents.

Are you saying there have to be more American troops on the ground?

Initially there needs to be more American troops on the ground. The long-term answer and our existing strategy is more Afghan troops on the ground. We need to double the size of the Afghan army and the Afghan police over the currently planned increases.

Can the state support that once we go?

Afghanistan will not be able to provide resources to source a military of that size. That would be an international responsibility. It would be our responsibility. As the insurgency is defeated, the number of troops can be drawn down. ...

What gives you confidence that this is a war that can be won?

The single biggest factor in my belief that we can succeed in Afghanistan is I know the people who are responsible for this war. I've known [CENTCOM Commander] Gen. [David] Petraeus for well over 20 years. I know Ambassador Eikenberry, the American ambassador there. I know Gen. Stan McChrystal -- a man who eats one meal a day, whether he needs to or not; runs 20 miles a day; is smart, but also is absolutely dedicated and inspires an extraordinary loyalty in the people who work with for him.

So we have the most talented Americans we have in charge of this war. Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates, probably the best secretary of defense we've ever had. [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Adm. [Mike] Mullen, who is absolutely focused. ...

So I'm confident that success in Afghanistan is very much in America's vital national interest, that defeat in Afghanistan would be a catastrophe, and that we've got the right people in place to do what needs to be done. We just have to decide as a nation that this is something we're willing to do. ...

Seth Jones Author, The Graveyard of Empires

Seth Jones

The clock is ticking in Afghanistan.

Can the U.S. win back the trust of the Afghans? In my view, that's actually irrelevant. What matters is whether the Afghans can trust, to some degree, their government. Because what's interesting about Afghanistan's history, and what most people tend to care about in rural areas, is service delivery and protection at a local level. And that's been done by locals. The government has played a minimal role in providing basic services and order.

And I would say nowhere in any counterinsurgency manual does it ever say that the U.S. has to be popular. So, in that sense, the U.S. doesn't have to win back the credibility of the Afghans. But if the government loses that credibility, U.S. hopes in Afghanistan are sunk.

Adm. Mike Mullen Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

So if you could, give me your security assessment for Afghanistan.

... It's serious and deteriorating. I focus that on a much better insurgency in the part of the Taliban, conditions that have gotten better for them since about the '06 timeframe, the last three-plus years.

One of those summers actually they suffered some devastating leadership losses. And what's instructive to me -- and I think that was in '07 -- it was how fast they came back in '08. So a tough group, tough fight.

They have intimidated the people. They aren't all leaving and going across the border to Pakistan anymore. They enjoy even space in Afghanistan where they are free to both train and rest, etc. So it's just a much tougher fight, much more sophisticated.

For about the last year, when I visited troops over there, they've talked about improved tactics. I saw it in small-unit tactics last year up in the east, had the same discussion as recently as a month ago with some of our Rangers who were operating in the south. ...

Where are they getting that capability from?

It's a warrior mentality in that part of the world. It's something they've learned. They've watched us clearly over the last several years. They have been able to train relatively freely, even in the winter and in the safe havens in Pakistan, and they've improved. They're adaptable, tough fighters, and in that regard they've had a significant downward effect on the security for the people. And they know what they're doing in that regard.

Can you beat them?

Not yet. We can beat them from a combat standpoint. ... But in the end this isn't about us -- outside forces, the United States and coalition forces -- beating the Taliban. This is about the Afghan people. Gen. McChrystal ... has made this the central focus since he's been there, security for the Afghan people.

And as in any insurgency, eventually the strength is generated through the people and they turn out the insurgency. And that's what's got to happen here, as well. But it's not just the military piece, because there's a governance piece. There's a corruption piece. There's an economic-development piece, all of which have to play. But to get those going you've got to create a level of security where those other legs of stool, if you will, can start to produce.

Steve Coll Author, The Bin Ladens

It might all work, but the question is, what is the role of more troops? That's really the hard question that President Obama faces. Look, there's no chance that the Obama administration or the international community is just going to pull the plug on Afghanistan and walk away. There is a commitment to do the hard work, to prevent the Taliban from taking control of the Afghan government, from destabilizing all of South Asia, from destabilizing Pakistan.

So the question is not stay or go. The question is, are more American troops part of the solution, or are more American troops part of the problem?

And that's a hard question. And you have to start with, first, principles. What are our vital national security interests at issue in this war? I think there isn't enough clarity about the answer to that question. Certainly there's not enough clarity in the minds of the American people. So at a minimum, better communication is required.

I wonder if there is enough clarity, even inside the Obama administration, about exactly what security interests we're really fighting for here.

I think that there are two. One the president articulates all the time, and I think he's correct about it: It's a vital national security issue for the United States to defeat or disable or reduce Al Qaeda to the point where it can no longer carry out disruptive attacks against the United States or important allies of the United States.

But Al Qaeda isn't in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is on the border. You can argue that an American presence in Afghanistan is vital to continue to prosecute that important campaign. But that's only one of the two reasons that this war matters.

The other is that the United States has a vital national security interest in a stable, modernizing South Asia. Pakistan, India, all of South Asia -- a billion and a half people are on the cusp of joining modern Asia in a march to prosperity, political normalcy and stability.

If Pakistan blows up, if the Taliban succeed in radicalizing local populations, then this region will be chronically unstable for years to come.

And why does that matter to the United States? Not least because there are more than 100 nuclear weapons already finished and extant in this region. ...

George Packer The New Yorker

George Packer

There's a lot of talk about [reassessing in 12 months]. What does that suggest about Washington's stomach for this fight? And how much can we really say after 12 months in here?

... It worries me a lot to hear it because nothing can be done in 12 months. I mean, minimal course corrections can start to be felt in 12 months.

But transformation? No way. What it tells you is the Obama administration is politically savvy and knows that after eight years of war the public has grown beyond weary. The Army and Marines have been ground down by this.

And if the results aren't there, we pull out?

We don't pull out all at once if the results aren't there. But there will be, I think, a sort of administration-wide review that may well lead to a dropping down of this level of involvement. It doesn't happen all at once. ...

[Obama] can't just say: "Oh, it didn't work. Let's try something else. Let's go to Yemen. Let's go to Somalia. Let's go home." He can't do that. So he will be stuck if it's looking worse next year than it is this year. He will be in, I think, political jeopardy at that point.

He's stuck both ways?

Well, that's the quagmire scenario. And the "q" word comes up. People are not afraid to mention it. I've been impressed by how intellectually open the officials I talked to are to the possibility of this not working.

In Iraq you used to hear this cliché, "Failure is not an option." Well, failure actually was pretty much the option they were pursuing for a very long time. I don't hear anyone saying that in Afghanistan. I hear them saying: "We're going to try. But it's going to be really hard and we don't know if it's going to work." That's a bit reassuring to me, that the people in charge have thought about what they're doing, and may even be thinking about plan B even while pursuing plan A.

Thomas Ricks Author, The Gamble

Thomas Ricks

A lot of people think I'm too pessimistic about Iraq. By contrast, I'm pretty optimistic about Afghanistan. It has a couple of things going for it.

Afghans do have a sense of national identity. And they have experienced Islamic extremist rule under the Taliban. And overwhelmingly, they didn't like it. So I think we have a natural sort of reserve both of good will and a cohesive identity in Afghanistan that will help what we're trying to do there.

I'm far more pessimistic about Pakistan, though. What worries me there is that Pakistan doesn't have a national identity, and it doesn't have a national elite that's operating in its own interest. You have this central kleptocracy, people who are just trying to grab resources, grab money for their own good, and stash it in banks out of Pakistan; that are not trying to do their best for the country.

So I worry that Pakistan will fall apart and you'll wind up with Islamic extremists running whatever remains of parts of the country. And you wind up with hazy controls on those nuclear weapons that the Pakistanis have built, at least 100 of them.

... Do the American people understand the importance of getting this right? Or is this an overstated problem?

I don't know. It's too early to actually say how large or how important these wars are. I keep on thinking of something that Ambassador Ryan Crocker said to me in Baghdad in 2008: The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered have not yet happened. I think the same is true in Afghanistan.

We don't know, really, how significant these wars will be in our history or in Middle Eastern history. I suspect they're very important for us, and even more important for the Middle East. I worry in both wars, it's not what's possible to achieve, it's what's going to happen if you don't achieve. That is to say, the upside is pretty limited. The downside is huge.

The downside in Afghanistan is Afghanistan is so destabilized that it destabilizes Pakistan, that Pakistan falls apart, and that suddenly, you have a country that has Islamic extremists, no real government, and nuclear weapons floating around. And that's Al Qaeda's dream, and it's our nightmare.

So, yeah, it's important to get it right, not for everything that you can do, but for everything that might happen if you don't get it right.

posted october 13, 2009

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