x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

US diplomat's resignation raises questions about the war in Afghanistan

After eight years of war in Afghanistan, October was for American forces the deadliest month. Although the combination of international and Afghan forces provides a huge numerical advantage against the Taliban, victory has never appeared more elusive. More than 100,000 international troops working with 200,000 Afghan security forces and police means that the Taliban are outnumbered by 12 to one, yet numbers have provided no apparent advantage.

After eight years of war in Afghanistan, October was for American forces the deadliest month. Although the combination of international and Afghan forces provides a huge numerical advantage against the Taliban, victory has never appeared more elusive. More than 100,000 international troops working with 200,000 Afghan security forces and police means that the Taliban are outnumbered by 12 to one, yet numbers have provided no apparent advantage, the Associated Press said. While at The White House, Obama administration officials continue to thrash out the details of a revised war strategy, The Washington Post published a letter of resignation from a US official based in the Zabul province of southeastern Afghanistan who by early September had concluded that there was no value or worth "in continued US casualties or expenditures or resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war." Matthew Hoh joined the US foreign service early this year and had the combined civil-military experience the administration needed as it expanded its development efforts in Afghanistan. A former marine captain with combat experience in Iraq, Mr Hoh had also served in the Pentagon and as a civilian in Iraq and at the US state department. "Hoh's doubts increased with Afghanistan's August 20 presidential election, marked by low turnout and widespread fraud. He concluded, he said in his resignation letter, that the war 'has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and supports the Pashtun insurgency.' "With 'multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups,' he wrote, the insurgency 'is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The US and Nato presence in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified.' "American families, he said at the end of the letter, 'must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can be made any more.'" Mr Hoh wrote: "I do not believe any military force has ever been tasked with such a complex, opaque and Sisyphean mission as the US military has received in Afghanistan. The tactical proficiency and performance of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines is unmatched and unquestioned. However, this is not the European or Pacific theatres of World War II, but rather is a war for which our leaders, uniformed, civilian and elected, have inadequately prepared and resourced our men and women. Our forces, devoted and faithful, have committed to conflict in an indefinite and unplanned manner that has become a cavalier, politically expedient and Pollyannaish misadventure. Similarly, the United States has a dedicated and talented cadre of civilians, both US government employees and contractors, who believe in and sacrifice for their mission, but have been ineffectually trained and led with guidance and intent shaped more by the political climate in Washington, DC than in Afghan cities, villages, mountains and valleys. " 'We are spending ourselves into oblivion' a very talented and intelligent commander, one of America's best, briefs every visitor, staff delegation and senior officer. We are mortgaging our nation's economy on a war, which, even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years to come. Success and victory, whatever they may be, will be realised not in years, after billions more spent, but in decades and generations. The United States does not enjoy a national treasury for such success and victory." In a recent column for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof noted: "The United States was born of our ancestors' nationalistic resentment of a foreign power whose troops we saw as occupiers, not protectors. The British never fathomed our basic grievance - this was our land, not theirs! - so the more they cracked down, the more they empowered the American insurgency. "Given that history, you'd think we might be more sensitive to nationalism abroad. Yet the most systematic foreign-policy mistake we Americans have made in the post-World War II period has been to underestimate its potency, from Vietnam to Latin America. "We have been similarly oblivious to the strength of nationalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly among the 40 million Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border there. That's one reason the additional 21,000 troops that President Obama ordered to Afghanistan earlier this year haven't helped achieve stability, and it's difficult to see why 40,000 more would help either." On Wednesday, The New York Times reported: "President Obama's advisers are coalescing around a strategy for Afghanistan aimed at protecting about 10 top population centres, administration officials said Tuesday, describing an approach that would stop short of an all-out assault on the Taliban while still seeking to nurture long-term stability. "Mr Obama has yet to make a decision, but as officials described it, the debate is no longer over whether to send additional troops but how many more will be needed to guard the most vital parts of the country. The question of how much of the country should fall under direct protection of American and Nato forces will be central to deciding how many troops Mr Obama will dispatch. "At the moment, the administration is looking at protecting Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat, Jalalabad and a few other village clusters, officials said. The first of any new troops sent to Afghanistan would be assigned to secure Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban, which is seen as a centre of gravity in pushing back insurgent advances." Meanwhile, at Foreign Policy, J Scott Carpenter, who served as an official election observer during the first round of Afghanistan's election, wrote: "The decision by both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his main rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, to accept a runoff election is a welcome development that provides the Afghan government with an opportunity to restore its damaged credibility. The runoff election now faces two main challenges: making the process more credible and ensuring the election actually contributes to security. Setting November 7 as the date for the election makes both impossible. "Nationwide elections in any country are logistically difficult. In Afghanistan, they're a nightmare. Funds need to be mobilised (the last elections cost more than $500 million), new poll workers need to be hired (or fired), observers have to be recruited, voters reassured, and security forces redeployed. Because ballots are often transported by donkey, it could take weeks to distribute them to Afghanistan's remotest areas. A mad rush will be the only way to get all of this done, and such haste will not contribute to a credible process. "The first step in ensuring a credible election, therefore, is to postpone the date for the runoff."

pwoodward@thenational.ae