What a difference two months makes. Way back then, as it were, the staunchly resolute talk on Afghanistan was all about the big military surge just announced by President Barack Obama, with NATO leaders pledging to ante up lots of troops, too. (Even as actual national commitments were, well, lacking.) Now the talk coming out of Thursday's big 70-nations conference in London on Afghanistan centers on talking with the Taliban, and on exit strategies.
While all the attention -- in the hyperventilating aftermath of the Democrats' eminently avoidable Massachusetts special election loss -- was on Obama's State of the Union address, an event of far greater relevance to the fate of his presidency played out not in Washington, but in London.
Afghan forces tightened security in Kabul on January 19th, a day after a brazen Taliban assault on the capital left 12 people, including seven militants, dead and raised concerns about the government's ability to protect even urban centers.
In Washington, there was barely a word on the issue on which I think Obama's re-election will turn, that of getting further into, and then out of, Afghanistan.
The economy is slowly recovering. One way or the other, Obama will be able to campaign for re-election in 2012 having staved off another Great Depression inherited from the Bush/Cheney Administration. Which he focused on effectively in his big speech. The question is how quickly and fully the recovery comes prior to the mid-term election, in order for Obama and the Democrats to limit expected losses.
Afghanistan is another, more dangerous, matter for Obama's presidency.
With his two military escalations there, Obama is doing what he said he would do, as he generally does. But just because you say you're going to do something doesn't mean that you should do it.
President Barack Obama announced his AfPak strategy, and a big military surge in Afghanistan. at the beginning of December in this speech at West Point.
Our only reasonable goal in Afghanistan is to deny it as a renewed base of operations for Al Qaeda. We don't need a big military escalation there to accomplish that.
And so, even though there is a big Marine offensive slated for February in southern Afghanistan, the light may at last be dawning.
And no, it's not the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, which if there is such, looks more like an oncoming train.
Instead, what it looks like is a bid to work, somehow, with tame Taliban. Or at least Taliban who won't harbor transnational jihadists. It isn't being put this way, but what it looks like is a try for a coalition government, not unlike what Robert F. Kennedy called for with the Vieg Cong in South Vietnam.
Leaders from 70 nations meeting Thursday in London agreed on a timetable of sorts for foreign forces to exit Afghanistan. The delegates also backed the Afghan president's plan to lure Taliban fighters to renounce violence.
The Guardian reported today that the retired Pakistani general who was his intelligence service's handler for Mullah Omar says that the former Afghan Taliban government chief is ready to deal. And to deal away any backing for Al Qaeda.
Dealing with Mullah Omar, who amazingly managed to slip away from Afghanistan in 2001 may be, from a political standpoint for Obama, a bridge too far, no matter what Omar says.
At least for now.
So the hunt is on to get more moderate Taliban involved, both by offering amnesty and by offering money.
- Several regional Taliban commanders reportedly met with a UN representative three weeks ago.
- Several other ranking Taliban of the past have been removed from the UN sanctions list.
- British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who visited Afghanistan recently, says that European countries have put together a140 million fund to encourage Afghan militants to abandon the fight and join the mainstream.
A big part of the latest new plan for Afghanistan is to buy off major elements of the Taliban.
- Uzbekistan, a key part of the alternate Russian-oriented supply route for NATO forces -- the one not subject to jihadist attacks in Pakistan -- wants the war to wind down.
- The Afghan government, which seems more interested than the U.S. in dealing with Mullah Omar, plans to invite the Taliban to a council of elders on the country's future.
- What additional NATO troops there are on the way -- if in fact they are more than replacements for forces already in Afghanistan -- look to be coming as mostly trainers for Afghans rather than as combat troops.
- The communique released by the London conference focused on withdrawal. The security of some provinces is to be handed over to Afghan forces late this year and early next year. As for the, let's say, less secure provinces, they are to be handed over to the Afghan troops sometime in the next three years. (This supposes a massive development of Afghan troops and police forces.)
A lot more aid was promised to Afghanistan, in unspecific amounts. And, naturally, the regime of President Hamid Karzai was again directed to tackle the massive corruption problem in the government.
Meanwhile, the fighting continues. The Taliban are taking the opportunity to show that the Afghan forces that have already been trained are not adequate to the task.
A fierce battle broke out on Friday between Afghan security forces and a team of Taliban fighters targeting UN and government buildings in the capital city of southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province.
On January 18th, a small band of Taliban fighters paralyzed the capital city of Kabul with a daring strike. They're all dead now, but Afghan security, needless to say, even around the national ministries, looks very lax.
Today another Taliban strike force hit the capital city of southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province, nearly overwhelming Afghan government forces in the city center.
The Afghan national parliament has twice turned down most of Karzai's Cabinet appointees, and the parliamentary election scheduled for March may have to be postponed till the fall due to lack of funding.
What Obama needs to do in order to avoid a debacle that irrevocably scars his presidency is to focus on the real mission -- to deny Afghanistan as an operational base for Al Qaeda -- and scale back the more grandiose pseudo-nation building plans he was drawn into last year. There simply isn't going to be a functioning Western-style modern democracy in all of Afghanistan and it's folly to pretend otherwise.