In recent days, NATO forces have been urging civilians to leave the town of Marjah in Helmand province before coalition forces launch a major offensive against the insurgents. Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is offering to negotiate with Taliban leaders while simultaneously encouraging their followers to join the central government in Kabul.
“It seemed to me, talking to the American military at least, that they were far more secure in their grasp of the country than they had been before,” said Roy Gutman, foreign editor of the McClatchy newspaper chain, who has just returned from Afghanistan. “They had a much better idea of what they knew and didn’t know, whereas several years ago, it seemed to me that they were living in a time warp, almost on another planet.”
Gutman is the author of a book on U.S. policy and press coverage of events in Afghanistan in the decade before the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington – How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan.
There has been a “night and day change” in the U.S. approach to the war in Afghanistan over the last eight months.
“Since General McChrystal came in, they have really tried to study the terrain and the population and the politics of the country and tried to figure out ways to work with it rather than impose U.S. goals and U.S. understanding on it,” Gutman suggests.
Nonetheless, there are many factors beyond American control, Gutman emphasizes. Among them are local justice and local security.
“To a large extent, the Taliban dominate the country - at least by night - and they have the ability to create utter havoc for civilians and for the Western militaries,” he observed.
Gutman describes the new U.S. strategy as trying to create a space so the Afghan government and security forces can take charge of their own country.
“It’s not a complete defeat of the Taliban, but it is knocking them off balance. It’s an unusual mission, but it’s forced on them by the nature of the decision President Obama made when he agreed to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan - but only for a limited time, something like 18 months,” he said.
But Gutman said he is hopeful about the outcome. “I think there is a possibility - even though I wouldn’t want to rate it too high - that in fact the mission can be accomplished.”
Afghan journalist Nabi Misdaq suggests that, although the military aspect of the U.S. strategy may be sound, it does not address a longer-term problem.
“The problem is that the British and the Americans are just going to do the fighting and then leave the area for the Afghan police and the Afghan National Army to control,” Misdaq says.
They have a very poor reputation, he notes. “So people get very disappointed, and that’s the reason the Taliban and other resistance groups come back to the area,” Misdaq explains.
The way to win people’s trust is to provide the things they desperately need, Misdaq argues. “To give you one example, there is a hydro-electric dam in Kajaki, north of Helmand, on which the international forces have been working for six years, and now - all of a sudden - they have decided they are not going to go ahead with it.”
If the international community can abandon a project they have been working on for six years, that’s not a good sign, he warns. “People will question whether they can see through any other project, especially when President Obama is saying that by next July the troops will start coming home.”
Afghan Government Strategy
Meanwhile, President Karzai has developed a two-track plan to end the war - by negotiating with Taliban leaders while trying to lure their followers away by promising them jobs, higher pay, and development projects. But Misdaq said the Afghan people are skeptical of any initiative coming from the Karzai government.
"The people don’t trust Karzai or the government. This government has not delivered in the past eight years, so they are suspicious it will deliver now,” he observed.
“I think we have to be cautious, and we have to warn that, if you try to do things through the Kabul government, which is absolutely corrupt, then you are not going to make much progress,” Misdaq said. “The thing is to go ahead and work with people on the ground and implement the projects that are absolutely necessary.”
Long-Term Strategic Considerations
A successful long-term strategy will require a political settlement, Gutman insists, but he agrees that the Karzai government has lost the confidence of the Afghan people because of widespread corruption and empty promises.
“Drugs are a huge problem, and it corrupts everything,” Gutman said. “But the biggest single problem of corruption is not just that money is coming in from the drug trade, which is obviously affecting the whole government. The bigger problem is that at the local level what passes for a central government has failed to establish any kind of institutions of justice and security. You have to deliver basic services, and there has been little investment in most of the provinces.”
Although it is impossible to predict how successful the new military campaign and the new strategy for strengthening the Kabul government will prove, analysts are agreed that the challenges are immense.