Obama must redefine success in Afghanistan

January 20, 2009

Paul Taylor Great Debate— Paul Taylor is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own —

Barack Obama says he will make Afghanistan the central front in his fight against terrorism but the incoming U.S. president will have to scale back the war aims he inherits from George W. Bush and redefine success.

Bush ordered the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 to oust a Taliban government that was harboring al Qaeda militants blamed for the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

His declared goals were to defeat the Taliban, create a stable democracy and promote economic development, but he turned his attention quickly to Iraq before the task was done.

Since 2005, a revived Taliban insurgency has made growing inroads against understaffed U.S., NATO and Afghan forces, while President Hamid Karzai’s ineffective government has been mired in corruption and a booming illegal drugs trade.

The most Obama can hope to achieve in a mountainous country that wore down British and Soviet invaders is probably an ethnic power-sharing pact, including tribes that now help the Taliban, in hopes of keeping al Qaeda at bay once Western forces leave.

That is far from assured and would require cooperation from a weak Pakistani government transfixed by tension with India.

NATO officials see 2009 as crucial to turning the military and political tide before some allies start to withdraw in 2010.

“The basic problem in Afghanistan is not too much Taliban; it’s too little good governance,” NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer wrote in a Washington Post article on Sunday.

“We have paid enough, in blood and treasure, to demand that the Afghan government take more concrete and vigorous action to root out corruption and increase efficiency, even where that means difficult political choices,” he said.

Yet despite disenchantment with Karzai, no alternative leader is in sight with a presidential election due in September.


Asked in a Reuters interview last July what would constitute success in Afghanistan, Obama said: “I think our goals have to be very modest but they will still be very difficult to meet. We should want a functioning Afghan government that can maintain its own security and territorial integrity.

“…Our highest priority is making sure that the Taliban and al Qaeda can’t continue to use that region from which to launch attacks around the world. If we have routed them and scattered them, that would be success,” he said.

Despite plans to send up to 30,000 additional U.S. troops to reinforce the 32,000 already in Afghanistan, of whom about half serve in the 50,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, the prospect of routing the Taliban is remote.

Without extra forces, the West risks “a stalemate situation where we are not losing, but also not winning,” says De Hoop Scheffer.

NATO casualties rose by 34 percent last year, fueling public and parliamentary unease in many allied nations. Long, vulnerable supply lines from Pakistan to land-locked Afghanistan are under attack.

Attacks on Afghan government property and personnel were up by 134 percent and civilian casualties by 50 percent.

The British military is gloomy about security in the southern province of Helmand, where it is in the front line.

The Taliban are gaining public support, partly due to anger over civilian casualties from NATO air strikes. Despite heavy losses, they seem to have no problem recruiting fighters.

Sensing that time is on their side, Taliban leaders see little interest in local reconciliation talks offered by Kabul.

Karzai, stung by the civilian toll and perhaps with one eye on the elections, has been increasingly outspoken in criticism of foreign troops, further undermining public support for their presence and aggravating mistrust with his Western backers.

On a visit to Berlin last July, Obama challenged NATO allies to do more, saying the United States and Germany had a stake in seeing NATO’s first mission outside Europe succeed.

But European allies are unlikely to send more troops, and NATO officials expect Obama to present a shopping list of requests for police training, financial and development assistance, as well as military equipment such as helicopters, to avoid a public failure at his first alliance summit in April.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the key to success lies in Afghan public support and “Afghanisation” of the war. That requires accelerated training of the Afghan army and police and enrolling some tribal militias as security forces.

The European Union could do more than its present paltry 200 police trainers. But after pledging to double that number, it is having difficulty finding volunteers.

Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, veteran Pakistani expert Ahmed Rashid and U.S. Afghan specialist Barnett Rubin said: “The goal of the next U.S. president must be to put aside the past, Washington’s keenness for ‘victory’ as the solution to all problems, and the United States’ reluctance to involve competitors, opponents or enemies in diplomacy.”

They advocated a major diplomatic initiative involving India, Iran, Russia and China in a regional “contact group” to stabilize both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

General David Petraeus, who changed U.S. tactics in Iraq to roll back a Sunni insurgency, has advocated such a regional political approach in Afghanistan, and veteran troubleshooter Richard Holbrooke may lead that diplomatic drive.

But Obama has little time to find a more effective combination of military pressure and diplomatic incentives to avoid being ground down in Afghanistan.

For previous columns by Paul Taylor, click here.


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The problem in Afghanistan is Pakistan’s inability to control the lawless frontier region that borders Afghanistan. Afghanistan could not stop the cross border raids even if it had ten times the number of troops. Without solving the internal problems of Pakistan, there can be no realistic hope for peace.

Posted by Guy Thompto | Report as abusive

1. A centralist Presidentailist system is unsuited for a multi-nation, multi-ethnolinguistic, multi-religious hetrogeneous place like Afghanistan. It is a highly divided society.

2. The current government structure serves a particular clique ( A Pashtun Nationalist Clique ) whom can only function by an ongoing sponsorship of foriegners. The presence of such a goup perpetuates the sense that government is not a representation of the people – but an agent for imposing a particular kind of identity upon the hetrogenous people of that land.

Consequently there is no sense of accountablity to the electorate in a place like Afghanistan. It promotes croniesim…. it promotes the idea of government being a way to impose your will on your rivals and to enrich your ethnic/tribal group by monopolising everything.


A parliamentary system….a re-writing of the Pashtun centric constitution….a rejection of the ‘Southern Strategy’ of the US state department with regard to who should govern Afghanistan.

Posted by Jawan Kohistani | Report as abusive

To redefine success in Afghanistan, as the writer puts it, by calling the failure to apprehend the mastermind of the 911 attacks is to admit the last eight years was a lie. The US picks up a province as consolation prize? Perhaps we should see Iraq as payment for the loss of the WTC even if that building wasn’t worth a whole country. Just don’t say that to the Iraqi’s. The pull out agreement with Iraq doesn’t really say there were any financial gains and the price for oil doesn’t seem to support that idea either. If the new administration manages to sweet talk the issue away it looses not only it’s reputation as a military power – something it brags about to the point of very bad taste but its reputation as honestly defending its own and everyone else’s sense of what a government should be doing. The Wars were sold to an American public looking for a “noble” cause. We were supposed to be protecting innocent lives and not merely using it as an excuse to pick up prizes along the way.

Why bother to redefine anything? Just admit that the US lost the war, it’s soul and lost the economy. Shopping till we drop for the flag didn’t work. Had a draft been needed for the past eight years none of this would be happening at all.

The only unarguably legal thing about all the blood and treasure wasted this past eight years was the need to bring a mass murderer to justice. No one on earth was able to argue that wasn’t the “right thing to do”. To give up is truly dishonorable in every possible way. It reveals that the country is manipulated by liars, double-talkers and thieves until it can’t remember its own lies and than wraps it all in flags and bunting and calls it “all good”. It is beginning to sound that the new guy will be more of the same.

Maybe Prozac should be the national medication and provided free of change just so one can make an attempt to believe that any of the rhetoric that was so readily blathered by pundits of all sides sounds like it should be taken seriously.

Even if the next administration tries to dumb us all down we will still be stuck with the Patriot Act (whatever it’s current murky status) and the domestic spying and all the other attempts to control our population that weren’t really the threat to begin with. But maybe they were? There have been no Oklahoma City bombings since the powers that be started selling the idea of foreign terrorists. It may have all been a clever way to ship a lot of “toxic waste” off shore? I harbor a doubt that the last Administration ever really wanted him at all. That without him and Al Qaeda there would have been no excuse to invade the ME at all. Had we tried without him, we would have been seen as outright thieves with delusions of grandeur. How long will it take before the rest of the world sees that as well?

Perhaps the subject for another article could be “The War in Iraq – Penance for past misdeeds” on the part of over-ambitious, meddlesome and very smug would be rulers of the Globe. Perhaps Bin Laden knew it all along. WE were forced to undo the support we gave him back in the 80’s when Saddam was our favorite in his war against Iran. We were forced to take him down finally and at great expense. And not the automatic, support a puppet from afar and watch the Arabs (excuse me and Persians) kill them selves off? Bin laden made us “join the fun”?

Who’s really calling the shots there?

Posted by Paul Rosa | Report as abusive

In order for Obama to be able to redefine success in Afghanistan it must have been at one time previously defined. Bush threw us headlong into two separate wars that are common in their lack of a measurable objective.

But we will kill and be killed throughout the theater until terror subsides. Only when we view the killing as no longer terrifying will we have won the war on terror.

Posted by dennisTheBald | Report as abusive

This may be a case of winning the war, but losing the peace. Vietnam was similar. A growing insurgency, a war-weary American public.

Step 1: We need a massive surge of soldiers, like in Iraq. We need to beat down the insurgency again, to put them on the defensive.

Step 2: Pakistan needs to get its mess in order and establish control of its own borders. Support for the Taliban is coming from Pakistan’s west, cutting into NATO supply routes.

Step 3: The USA needs to grant further assistance to Pakistan, to assist in their domestic insurgency problems.

Step 4: Afghanistan needs to build up an army, trained and capable of taking on the insurgents. Encourage tribal militias, who can defend their homes from Taliban threats.

Step 5: Stamp out the corruption. Get the Afghani government to pass laws against corruption. Burn the poppy fields. Establish farms for food, not heroin. Build mosques and roads. Give the citizens a reason to support their country. Encourage tribal councils to take control of their regions, and make sure they form part of the government.

Step 6: Once the previous steps are complete, the time is right to start making overtures to the Taliban government for a peace agreement.

Posted by Spooky | Report as abusive

I hear all people talking about diplomacy in resolving the problems plaguing Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and to extend it further, almost all of Central Asia, the entire continent of Africa and to be honest, the entire continent of Asia.

We, in the West, who have inherited the concept of “Democracy” from the ancient Greeks, have a hard enough time adhering to the priniciple of Democracy ourselves. How the can we expect the populations of Central Asia, most of Africa and the Middle East who are also a very significant civilization but whose governance is based not on democracy but that of the strongest and hopefully benevolent autocracy embrace a concept which is entirely foreign to them? Even the Judeo-Christian_Islamic monotheistic religions believe in an autocratic God. Democracy was introduced to the populations of Asia and Africa only about 150 years ago when the Indian mutiny of 1857 against the East India Company forced the British Parliament to take over the administration of India from the East India Company.

I personally do not think that true Democracy, as we know it, is a goal that is achievable in the near future in these areas. The goals of tribal empowerment with reconstitution of the damage done to these poor people by well meaning Western idealists are far more likely to succeed. But this means Autocracy.

Posted by ClementW | Report as abusive

A coalition of governments and private industries could invest in a new Afghanistan industry…help create factories to build small photovotaic power systems. It would create jobs and industry, while providing much-needed energy sources for the Afghanis. Individual power systems would not be so prone to distruction by insurgents as large power plants. They could provide small individual systems to the remote communities, helping them connect to international communities and ideas. They could sell the units, creating international trade. Helping people rise out of poverty, creating jobs, and helping fight global warming throught alternative energy production is a better solution than armies and occupation.

Posted by ahawkins | Report as abusive

People need to take a step back and understand that Afghanitan is NOT a ‘nation-state’ – it never has been one. So those thinking they can ‘rebuild’ or recostruct the Afghan state are mislead by a false assumption that if only the state which sowed all of the tension in the society for it to blow up in the 70s could be restored everything will be fine…

One has to view Afghanistan as a space in which mulitiple nations exist – generally a Persian speaking north and Pashtu speaking south.

The north is far more secure and has the actual potential of becoming a viable state – an easier thing to do also…. from which place the civilzing move southwards can take place…. this would make the whole process of bring governance to that misgoverened and ungoverned territory called Afghanistan much more rational and likely to succeed. The only think impeding this view is this false notion that it has to be from the south – Pashtun led – which is disasterous. The Taliban is the most advanced vrsion of Pashtun civilization in recorded history…and yet the west still pursues a southern strategy and wondering why there is sucha small amount of success.

Posted by Jawan Kohistani | Report as abusive

I don’t believe that anyone wants peace in Afghanistan and it has been used many times before as fronts for larger conflicts. We don’t want to create a stable democracy there. We don’t even want one here.

Posted by jason | Report as abusive

Afganistan is not Vietnam. Do I need to state it again? The Chinese government is trying to mine copper and gems in the Afgan mountains. U.S. troops are helping protect Chinese investment. Afganistan does not have a united insurgency attempting to “liberate” Afgans from foreign investment. Opium production is big in Afganistan, as it was in Southeast Asia. Pakistan needs to rid itself of radicals–something impossible in a true democratic republic of our times. Pakistan is where the United States and NATO must win. Afganistan must change to suit the goals of Iran and other local nations wanting to end the drug culture on their borders.

Posted by joseph ferguson | Report as abusive