x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Obama faces growing opposition to war in Afghanistan

With the war entering its ninth year and appearing to be an open-ended exercise in nation-building with limited prospects of success, support among Americans and across allied nations is dwindling. As the shadow of Vietnam looms large, President Obama may find himself relying on Republican support rather than from his own party in the event that he decides to send more troops.

With the war entering its ninth year and appearing to be an open-ended exercise in nation-building with limited prospects of success, support among Americans and across allied nations is dwindling. The shadow of Vietnam looms large. "As President Obama prepares to decide whether to send additional troops to Afghanistan, the political climate appears increasingly challenging for him, leaving him in the awkward position of relying on the Republican Party, and not his own, for support," The New York Times reported. "The simple political narrative of the Afghanistan war - that this was the good war, in which the United States would hunt down the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks - has faded over time, with popular support ebbing, American casualties rising and confidence in the Afghan government declining. In addition, Afghanistan's disputed election, and the attendant fraud charges that have been lodged against President Hamid Karzai, are contributing further to the erosion of public support. "A CBS News poll released on Tuesday reports that 41 per cent of those polled wanted troop levels in Afghanistan decreased, compared with 33 per cent in April. Far fewer people - 25 per cent - wanted troop levels increased, compared with 39 per cent in April. And Mr Obama's approval rating for his handling of Afghanistan has dropped eight points since April, to 48 per cent. "Congressional Democrats, particularly those on the left, report increasing disenchantment among constituents with the idea of a long and possibly escalating conflict in Afghanistan, especially as the American strategy comes to resemble a long-term nation-building approach rather than a counterterrorism operation." Alan Cowell said: "Were they to vote today along the lines that opinion surveys suggest, most Europeans, like many Americans, would withdraw their forces rather than risk more death, injury and peril. "For every European leader seeking to cement credentials as a loyal ally of the United States, the deployment in Afghanistan offers the same high-stakes political risks as it does for President Barack Obama: the body-bags carrying home the fallen not only hearten the Taliban, they call into question the durability of the outsiders' commitment to a land that has shrugged off intruders for centuries. "If, one day, Afghanistan is 'won' (however that is computed), any nation with a soldier in or near the distant theatre of combat will claim the mantle of triumph, even though the principal combatants - and casualties - will probably be Americans and Britons. "But if it is 'lost' - if the Taliban survives and Western resolve falters - then Afghanistan will pass into history as an orphan war, shrouded in the same questions of blame and defeat as Vietnam." In the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus noted: "Transparency International, an independent group that measures corruption around the world, ranks Afghanistan as one of the world's five worst governments, 176th out of 180. Afghans report that police officers, judges and other officials routinely shake them down for bribes. "Meanwhile, the Taliban, which came to power in 1996 because it promised to be incorruptible, has reportedly appointed ombudsmen - ombudsmen! - in the growing areas it controls. "Last month's presidential election in Afghanistan was intended to bolster the legitimacy of whatever government emerged. It didn't. Supporters of President Hamid Karzai corrupted the election on a grand scale, stealing ballots, preventing opponents from voting and stuffing ballot boxes. Instead of strengthening the government's legitimacy, the election weakened it. "That's why this month's noisy debate about how many more troops Obama will send to Afghanistan is almost a sideshow. Mullen said he's confident that his commander in Kabul, Army Gen Stanley A McChrystal, can improve security on the ground with an Afghan version of the counterinsurgency strategy that worked in Iraq. 'We know how to do this,' Mullen said at a news conference Thursday. "The more difficult question is whether the Afghan government can take advantage of whatever security the Americans give it." Bob Herbert wrote in The New York Times: "The war, hopelessly botched by the Bush crowd, has now lasted nearly eight long years, longer than our involvement in World Wars I and II combined. There is nothing even remotely resembling a light at the end of the tunnel. The war is going badly and becoming deadlier. July and August were the two deadliest months for US troops since the American invasion in October 2001. "Nevertheless, with public support for the war dwindling, and with the military exhausted and stretched to the breaking point physically and psychologically after so many years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, the president is ratcheting the war up instead of winding it down. "He has already ordered an increase of 21,000 troops, which will bring the American total to 68,000, and will be considering a request for more troops that is about to come from Gen Stanley McChrystal, the commander of American and Nato forces in Afghanistan. "These will be troops heading into the flames of a no-win situation. We're fighting on behalf of an incompetent and hopelessly corrupt government in Afghanistan. If our ultimate goal, as the administration tells us, is a government that can effectively run the country, protect its own population and defeat the Taliban, our troops will be fighting and dying in Afghanistan for many, many years to come." Nicholas Kristof delivered a stern warning about the possible outcome in the event that Mr Obama chooses to send additional troops. "That would be a fateful decision for his presidency, and a group of former intelligence officials and other experts is now reluctantly going public to warn that more troops would be a historic mistake. "The group's concern - dead right, in my view - is that sending more American troops into ethnic Pashtun areas in the Afghan south may only galvanise local people to back the Taliban in repelling the infidels. " 'Our policy makers do not understand that the very presence of our forces in the Pashtun areas is the problem,' the group said in a statement to me. 'The more troops we put in, the greater the opposition. We do not mitigate the opposition by increasing troop levels, but rather we increase the opposition and prove to the Pashtuns that the Taliban are correct. " 'The basic ignorance by our leadership is going to cause the deaths of many fine American troops with no positive outcome,' the statement said. "The group includes Howard Hart, a former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Pakistan; David Miller, a former ambassador and National Security Council official; William J Olson, a counterinsurgency scholar at the National Defense University; and another CIA veteran who does not want his name published but who spent 12 years in the region, was station chief in Kabul at the time the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and later headed the CIA's Counterterrorism Centre. " 'We share a concern that the country is driving over a cliff,' Mr Miller said. "Mr Hart, who helped organise the anti-Soviet insurgency in the 1980s, cautions that Americans just don't understand the toughness, determination and fighting skills of the Pashtun tribes. He adds that if the US escalates the war, the result will be radicalisation of Pashtuns in Pakistan and further instability there - possibly even the collapse of Pakistan. "These experts are not people who crave publicity; I had to persuade them to go public with their concerns. And their views are widely shared among others who also know Afghanistan well. " 'We've bitten off more than we can chew; we're setting ourselves up for failure,' said Rory Stewart, a former British diplomat who teaches at Harvard when he is not running a large aid program in Afghanistan. Mr Stewart describes the American military strategy in Afghanistan as 'nonsense'."

pwoodward@thenational.ae