Without the two main architects of his policy on Afghanistan, the fundamental flaws in Obama's surge are unavoidable.
A flurry of reports indicate how the US has neither the time nor the ability to defeat the Taliban or build an Afghan state that can deliver real justice to the country.
The failures of General Stanley McChrystal, who resigned in June, and Richard Holbrooke, who died suddenly this week, are symbolic of the crumbling of the twin pillars, both military and civilian, of Barack Obama's counterinsurgency strategy (Coin). The US has now outlasted the Soviet presence of the 1980s and the Afghan war has entered a violent stalemate.
Internal contradictions over the war are laid bare by the latest US government review, which reports modest progress, despite US intelligence services being much more pessimistic about the war. In this one instance we don't need WikiLeaks to tell us that there is no US government consensus about the state of play in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, both McChrystal and Holbrooke have exited the Afghan stage. While the Rolling Stone article that triggered McChrystal's downfall will be remembered for his criticisms of the Obama administration, of far greater importance was his revelation of the "war within" and how he was unable to slow down the relentless deadly grind of US military operations.
In November the US deployed main battle tanks to Helmand for the first time as part of what the International Crisis Group (ICG) describes as the strategy "to try to pummel the Taliban to bring them to the table." Long forgotten is the emphasis on hearts and minds that sat at the core of the Coin strategy back in February 2009.
The Red Cross has reported that "growing civilian casualties, internal displacement and poor medical care have created a dire humanitarian situation," and at the start of December a BBC national opinion poll in Afghanistan suggested that more Afghans feel that attacks against US or International Security Assistance Force troops are justified than at any time since 2005.
While we can never be sure if it was the stresses surrounding his job that eventually killed Holbrooke, his death means the loss of hundreds of hours spent building up personal relationships with key figures in Afghanistan. Holbrooke did not live to read the new Chatham House report, which heavily criticizes the Afghan government, highlighting how "illegal land grabs, the political marginalization of tribal and factional rivals and arbitrary detention have motivated Afghans to join or support the Taliban."
The report goes so far as to describe the country as a "mafia" state. The notion of building effective security forces to represent and defend the government is an almost impossible task akin to trying to build a fortress on quicksand. The ICG highlighted in November how, while an "alluring narrative of a successful counterinsurgency campaign has begun to take shape," the reality is that "Afghanistan still lacks a cohesive national security strategy and the Afghan military and police remain dangerously fragmented and highly politicized."
The Chatham House report agrees that building up the security forces without enshrining principles of justice in the Afghan state allows opposing forces to flourish in what remains essentially a civil conflict with both regional and international dimensions. It quotes NATO officers' own assertions that military operations have little point if nothing is done to reform the very character of the Kabul government.
Yet the American effort would appear to have bet all its chips on Afghan president Hamid Karzai's ability to succeed, despite the report's warnings that "Karzai appears to accept that injustice at the hands of the government has driven many to fight, but not, it seems, the extent of his own responsibility as head of state."
Justice is tied to fundamental principles of legitimacy, which consist of far more than a series of elections. The genesis of the Taliban was partly a reaction to deep-seated government corruption. Yet Holbrooke, despite his statesman credentials, was more part of a consistent US drive for short-term expediency than any longer-term vision for the country.
In short, the reason why the US has been in Afghanistan for so long is not because it wants to be there but because it has no idea how to leave. As long as injustice and illegitimacy remain, there will be potent rallying calls for violent attacks against the institutions of government.
Arguably the Chatham House report has arrived nine years too late. While it rightly recommends avoiding "shortcuts to stability" and endorses long-term perspectives, it perhaps fails to recognize that the political will has been steadily draining away. The report warns against the notion of hoping for stability without justice, yet this is more or less the exact prescription that allowed the US to "surge" and then leave Iraq with a narrative of supposed success.
The apparent failure of the "surge" to bring about a similar stability in Afghanistan is likely to lead to countries committing themselves to deadlines regardless of events, with the British government's 2015 commitment a prime example.
Originally written for Guardian.
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