What Price Afghanistan?

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“The narrative … has been too negative.”

So says Defense Secretary Robert Gates of political and press commentary about the war in Afghanistan. It reminds him of the pessimism of June 2007, before the Iraqi surge began to succeed, said Gates.

But the narrative is coming now not just from critics of the war but stalwart defenders. John McCain says the war effort could be headed for “crisis” and holds President Obama responsible for announcing a timetable for withdrawal starting next summer.

And how optimistic can Americans be when, last month, in the ninth year of our longest war, the U.S. field commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said the Taliban have fought us to a draw.

Eight years ago, the Taliban seemed finished.

Since then, we have poured in scores of thousands of troops, spent $300 billion, lost 1,000 soldiers and seen thousands more wounded. Yet, the Taliban have never been stronger or operated more broadly.

Unfortunately, the narrative the Pentagon deplores is rooted in reality.

The battle for Marjah, said to be a dress rehearsal for June’s decisive Battle of Kandahar, appears not to have been the triumph advertised. The Afghan government and police failed to follow up and take over the Marjah district. The Taliban continue to execute those working with the Americans.

Kandahar, with 800,000 people, is 10 times as populous as Marjah and the spiritual capital of the Taliban.

And we now learn the Battle of Kandahar will not take place in June.

Indeed, it is not going to be a battle at all, but a struggle for the hearts of the people, to persuade them to rise up against the Taliban, work with the Americans, and transfer their loyalty to Kabul and President Hamid Kharzi.

The people of Kandahar apparently do not want U.S. protection any more than they want a battle for the city. And how can President Kharzi win their loyalty when his drug-lord brother, Wali Kharzi, is the Al Capone of Kandahar?

As for President Kharzi himself, after a Taliban rocket attack on his loya jirga, the national council, this month, he got rid of his interior minister and his intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, in the biggest shakeup of his time in office. Both men had strong ties to the Americans, and Kharzi is said to have suspected that their first loyalty was to the Americans.

Shown evidence of the Taliban role in the attack on the loya jirga, says Saleh, Kharzi told him he thinks the Americans were behind it.

Kharzi, says Saleh, has lost all confidence that the United States and NATO have the perseverance to see the war through, and he is working in secret back channels to cut a deal with the Taliban.

From Harvard researcher Matt Waldman of the London School of Economics, reported in the London Telegraph, comes the explosive charge that Pakistani Intelligence is now fully collaborating with the Taliban.

On June 16, The New York Times reported that Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group behind the Mumbai massacre, is operating in Afghanistan, attacking Indian aid workers. Like the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba received early support from Pakistani intelligence.

What is going on in Afghanistan?

It appears that Pakistan, by maintaining ties to the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, wants to ensure that if and when the Americans do depart, as Obama signaled we would begin to do next July, Afghanistan will move into Islamabad’s orbit, not New Delhi’s.

For the United States and NATO, however, casualties are rising to the highest levels of the war. June is shaping up as the bloodiest month ever.

While Barack Obama has promised a review of U.S. strategy and policy in December, at the present rate, hundreds more young Americans will by then have given up their lives.

For what?

To succeed in creating in Afghanistan a country where the Taliban have been driven permanently from power and there is no chance of al-Qaida’s returns, we need a government in Kabul and an Afghan army and police that can follow up U.S. military gains by taking control, protecting the population and providing social reforms.

We don’t have that government. We have, instead, a regime that has no confidence we will stay the course and is thus dealing behind our backs with the enemy who is killing our troops.

It is simply not credible that the United States and its NATO allies, some of whom — like the Dutch — are pulling out, can prevail in this war in 12 months so America can begin coming home, as Obama has promised, unless Obama is willing to write Afghanistan off.

If he is, he should tell us now and save those Americans lives.

If he is not wiling to see Afghanistan fall, he should tell us what it will take, and how long, to avoid a defeat and win this war.

For saying the U.S. can succeed in the next 12 months in what we have failed to accomplish, at a rising cost in blood and money, for the last eight years, is not credible.

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