x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Week in review: lost in Afghanistan

As Matthew Hoh, a diplomat and former marine, became the first US official to resign because of his opposition to the war in Afghanistan, his reasons for stepping down provoked much commentary and little criticism. Even the chief US envoy for the region, Richard C Holbrooke, commenting on the diplomat's departure and the contents of Mr Hoh's resignation letter, conceded, 'I agreed with much of his analysis'.

As Matthew Hoh, a diplomat and former marine, became the first US official to resign because of his opposition to the war in Afghanistan, his reasons for stepping down provoked much commentary and little criticism. Even the chief US envoy for the region, Richard C Holbrooke, commenting on the diplomat's departure and the contents of Mr Hoh's resignation letter, conceded, 'I agreed with much of his analysis'. In the letter, Mr Hoh wrote: "...I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan. I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end. To put simply: I fail to see the value or the 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." Noting that the United States and its allies does not face a single enemy, he wrote: "The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, 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 and operations 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." Mark Sappenfield, reporting for The Christian Science Monitor said: "Hoh is perhaps the highest profile official with a military background to question the wisdom of the war in Afghanistan. With President Obama nearing a decision on a new Afghan strategy, Hoh's words come at a crucial time. "So far, the US military has spoken with resounding unanimity. Overwhelmingly, generals have backed the prescription of Gen Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan. McChrystal says American security would be best served by sending 44,000 more troops to stabilize Afghanistan. "Though Hoh makes pains to underscore the difficulty of his decision, he has chosen to respectfully - and publicly - disagree. "He is already scheduled to meet with the foreign policy adviser for [the US vice president, Joe] Biden - the most vocal proponent of a more limited military presence in Afghanistan." Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that for several years, Hamid Karzai's brother has been on the payroll of the CIA. "Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and a suspected player in the country's booming illegal opium trade, gets regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the past eight years, according to current and former American officials. "The agency pays Mr Karzai for a variety of services, including helping to recruit an Afghan paramilitary force that operates at the CIA's direction in and around the southern city of Kandahar, Mr Karzai's home. "The financial ties and close working relationship between the intelligence agency and Mr Karzai raise significant questions about America's war strategy, which is currently under review at the White House. "The ties to Mr Karzai have created deep divisions within the Obama administration. The critics say the ties complicate America's increasingly tense relationship with President Hamid Karzai, who has struggled to build sustained popularity among Afghans and has long been portrayed by the Taliban as an American puppet. The CIA's practices also suggest that the United States is not doing everything in its power to stamp out the lucrative Afghan drug trade, a major source of revenue for the Taliban. "More broadly, some American officials argue that the reliance on Ahmed Wali Karzai, the most powerful figure in a large area of southern Afghanistan where the Taliban insurgency is strongest, undermines the American push to develop an effective central government that can maintain law and order and eventually allow the United States to withdraw. " 'If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves,' said Maj Gen Michael T Flynn, the senior American military intelligence official in Afghanistan." After gunmen struck in the heart of Kabul on Wednesday, The Times said: "The Taliban attack on an international guesthouse in Kabul today is its bloodiest assault yet on the United Nations in Afghanistan - and represents a major escalation of its campaign to disrupt next week's presidential election run-off. "The attack, which killed 12 people including six UN staff, appears to be designed to force the UN to pull out of Afghanistan altogether - just as it did from Iraq after a truck bomb at its headquarters there killed 22 people in 2003. "A complete UN withdrawal from Afghanistan would almost certainly force the cancellation, or postponement, of the November 7 vote, which the UN is funding and has hundreds of staff helping to organise. "Some of those staying in the Bekhtar guesthouse were from UNDP Elect - the part of the UN directly involved in the poll." In The Washington Post, Colbert King suggested: "Afghanistan is a problem that won't wait. But that is what the Obama administration seems to want the Afghan war to do - that is, until the president comes up with a new war strategy. "As the White House studies - and restudies - the request of Gen Stanley McChrystal for at least 40,000 more troops, October has become the deadliest month in the eight-year-old war. "This week, President Obama told a military audience in Florida that he wouldn't risk their lives unless it is absolutely necessary. "Well, troops in Afghanistan are risking their lives today. "Meanwhile, the White House is in the grips of 'analysis paralysis'. "What's that? As marketing consultant Chris Garrett put it, 'analysis paralysis is where you can't make any forward progress because you bog yourself down in details, tweaking, brainstorming, research and-anything but just getting on with it.'" Andrew Exum, who has served in the US army in Afghanistan, was of the opposite opinion. At The Daily Beast he wrote: "there are two very good reasons why the Obama administration should take its time on its decision with respect to our Afghanistan policy. There are also reasons why both sides in the current debate should give the White House the time to do so. "First, any strategic planning process starts with a series of assumptions. If any of those assumptions prove false, the plan has to be revisited. A combination of the disastrous Afghan presidential elections and the bleak assessment of the war effort delivered by Gen Stanley McChrystal have perhaps convinced President Obama and his advisers that some of the assumptions they used to conclude in March that a counterinsurgency strategy represented the best path forward were no longer valid or perhaps never were. (In the interests of full disclosure, I served on the team that researched and helped to craft Gen McChrystal's report. My comments here do not reflect the opinions of either Gen McChrystal or his command.) "Second, while working in Afghanistan this summer, we quickly arrived at the conclusion that the weakness or predatory behaviour of the Afghan government represented as great a threat to mission success in Afghanistan as do any of the country's insurgent groups. The Obama adminstration has, I believe, some leverage at the moment, which it could use to affect the composition and behaviour of the next Afghan government. As long as Afghanistan's ruling politicians - Hamid Karzai especially - think the United States might reduce its commitment to Afghanistan, they could be willing to accede to US demands on key ministerial and provincial-level appointments. Just as an Afghan government consisting mainly of those politicians thrown out by the Taliban in 1996 would spell continued insurgency and mission failure, a more inclusive and competent Afghan government would enable the success of a counterinsurgency strategy."

pwoodward@thenational.ae