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Tick, tock ...

Afghanistan | Military commanders warn that a failure to act in Afghanistan soon could mean 'mission failure'

Issue: "Africa, Inc.," Oct. 10, 2009

The nation-building effort in Afghanistan faces well-rehearsed obstacles: One-fourth of the votes cast in the recent election are potentially fraudulent, President Hamid Karzai (for now, reelected) has the reputation for nurturing a government of corruption and graft, a resurgent Taliban is gaining control of the strategic city of Kandahar, and U.S. and international troops have suffered the most deaths this year since the war began in 2001.

So it's surprising that Afghan-born Khaled Hosseini, the author of two bestselling novels set in Afghanistan, including The Kite Runner, was the one to strike an encouraging note at a recent Senate hearing. The novelist, who is also U.S. envoy to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told senators, "No country in history has been able to establish a functioning state . . . and a stable society in just a few years." For all its problems, Afghanistan has a functioning government and an active parliament, and has 6 million children enrolled in schools (up from 800,000 in 2000).

To the question that's on everyone's mind, whether more U.S. troops can make an important difference, Hosseini responded, "[Afghans'] fear is not more engagement, their fear is less engagement."

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But the United States and its European allies are losing interest in putting troops forward in the next phase of a costly and unpopular war. Europeans show more support for "civilian surges" or training and development efforts, while a recent CNN poll of Americans showed that 58 percent are opposed to the war, an all-time high. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, only 26 percent of Americans back an increase in troop levels. Since the war began, over 840 U.S. and 567 international soldiers have been killed in the NATO-led operation.

Lacking popular support, President Barack Obama's top military commanders are pressing him nonetheless to increase troop levels. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen made that petition in a testimony to Congress at the beginning of September, saying, "I worry a great deal that the clock is moving very rapidly." Then The Washington Post got a copy of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal's report to Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in which he delivers an ultimatum: more troops in the next year or "mission failure."

That was in August when McChrystal sent the report, and the president is obviously reluctant to commit to more troops, even after debate intensified with the leaking of the report. Defense Secretary Gates sought to quell the buzz: "Everybody ought to take a deep breath." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview with PBS' NewsHour, "We're not going to make any decisions of any significance until we know the outcome of this election." But military commanders know that time is short.

On the advice of his top military brass, Obama increased troop levels to 17,000 soon after he took office, raising the total number deployed in the country to 68,000 by the end of the year (troop levels in Iraq, by comparison, are currently at about 130,000). But the leak of McChrystal's request for more troops indicates that top military advisers may be trying to force a decision from a waffling president. As commander in chief, Obama will have to be the one to issue the order-but he will eventually need additional funding for the surge from Congress.

While Obama sorts out his path forward, politicians on Capitol Hill are asking themselves fundamental questions about fighting al-Qaeda-and about why they are asking eight years into the war. "We have traveled this journey for seven years without a strategy," asserted Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as he chaired a recent Senate Foreign Relations hearing.

Can any development in Afghanistan happen without security first? Can the military usher in development? How will development be sustainable in a country that has been poor and underdeveloped for many decades? What about Pakistan and the Taliban's growth there? As Clinton pointed out, "We know that getting it right in Pakistan and along the border is critical. . . . So there's not just one decision point, number of troops."

Besides the multi-state character of the conflict is the multi-layered one-achieving security and nation building. "Our efforts toward al-Qaeda have created a situation where we're in two major state-building efforts," pointed out Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., at the Senate hearing. Counterterrorism strategy needs to change, he proffered, from "where we go around the world rebuilding nations out of whole cloth."

Then Corker wondered aloud if Afghanistan has the resources to be a stable economy on its own. Before the U.S. invasion, the country was producing about $4 billion in gross domestic product (about the equivalent of the Democratic Republic of Congo), and even though the economy has grown enormously since 2001, it still has one of the lowest GDPs per capita in the world.

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