Now that the pomp and circumstance of last week's Washington summit between the Obama Administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai has faded, what is the state of things?
Not very good. Really, not very good at all.
With the much telegraphed U.S., NATO, and Afghan offensive in Kandahar Province -- heartland of the Taliban since the movement's mid-1990s inception in the midst of Afghanistan's lengthy post-Soviet chaos -- on tap for June, the Taliban aren't exactly cowering in their caves waiting to lose. In fact, they say they're launching their own offensive.
President Barack Obama said last week that reports of tension between the U.S and Afghanistan are "simply overstated." Speaking with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he conceded there will be setbacks with Afghanistan and hopes for a broad strategy by year's end.
A sad milestone was reached on Tuesday. With a morning suicide attack against a U.S. military convoy in Kabul, the 1000th American has been killed in action in Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, a small unit of Taliban fighters launched an attack on massive Bagram Air Base. The four suicide bombers in the unit were killed before they could light off their explosives, thus preventing the unit from penetrating deeper into the base. The attack didn't amount to much in the end.
But the firefight did last for hours, and coming a day after the devastating suicide bombing of the U.S. military convoy in Kabul, counts as a propaganda coup for the Taliban.
Embarrassing and hurtful as these attacks in supposedly secure zones are, the problems for the U.S. in Afghanistan are much deeper.
Here are five key things to know. It's not meant to be an exhaustive list.
** The Karzai Factor. Last week, as the U.S./Afghan summit began, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Karzai as a key partner in the struggle against jihadism. The Obama Administration has never been happy with Karzai, and some officials, like National Security Advisor James Jones, former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, have criticized him severely. But for now, in public, they seem to be employing the carrot rather than the stick.
Obama's meeting with Karzai in Washington went better than their surprise meeting in Kabul did in late March. But then, it would almost have to have been better.
Obama inherited Karzai, who was installed as our man in Kabul by the Bush/Cheney Administration after the takedown of the Taliban regime in the aftermath of 9/11. As has been widely discussed, Karzai, who was buddy-buddy with George W. Bush, doing constant video conferences which Obama has eschewed, presides over one of the two or three most corrupt regimes on the planet.
A Taliban suicide bomber driving a van loaded with explosives attacked an American military convoy during the morning rush hour Tuesday in the Afghan capital city of Kabul with a highly lethal result.
Having sat out the great war against the Soviets, ostensibly as a fundraiser, Karzai carries little personal authority in a land with a very long and strong martial tradition. He hasn't been much more than a glorified mayor of Kabul, which is why the Taliban delight in making high profile strikes well within echoing distance of his presidential palace.
Karzai's thoroughgoing ineffectiveness wouldn't really matter if the U.S. were pursuing a counter-terrorist mission in Afghanistan to prevent it from again becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda rather than the nation-building exercise that is underway, at least for now. Someone like Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, who international monitors say was robbed in last year's presidential election, could preside over the north, from which forces could stage raids to prevent the re-establishment of training bases for transnational jihadists as existed in Afghanistan prior to 9/11.
But that's not the plan, at least, not now. And Obama, perhaps remembering how badly the U.S. removal of Ngo Dinh Diem backfired in South Vietnam in November 1963, has no apparent appetite for removing Karzai.
** The Escalate to Negotiate Factor. The saving grace about the nation-building exercise that the U.S. has undertaken in Afghanistan is that it's limited in scope, both by time and aims.
The idea is to build up Afghan civilian infrastructure and security forces and, at the same time, degrade the Taliban to force them to negotiate. The ultimate aim, which Karzai has repeatedly said himself, though not in these words, is to bring over elements of the Taliban as part of a coalition government in Afghanistan.
The problem is that we've been escalating for months and the Taliban seem no more willing to negotiate than they did before. Perhaps because they expect to win.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kicked off three days of talks with Afghan leaders last week in Washington by assuring President Hamid Karzai that America will remain committed to his country long after the last U.S. combat troops have departed.
** The Marja Factor. The big U.S. Marine-led offensive three months ago in the Taliban stronghold of Marja was a military success. It took a little longer than expected, but the Taliban were driven from the city and its environs. Or were they? And a turnkey civil administration was brought in to show that the non-Taliban Afghan government could be effective. But has it been?
It turns out that the Taliban are back. In fact, many of them never actually left, having simply melted back into the civilian population. Marine patrols in Marja regularly engage in firefights. And civil action projects are behind schedule.
** The Kandahar Factor. After the victory in Marja, next up on the schedule for a major offensive is Kandahar Province, the heartland of the Taliban since the religious students movement sprung up, with lots of assistance from the Pakistani ISI intelligence service, in the post-Soviet chaos of the mid-1990s. Kandahar was the seat of power for Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, now apparently ensconced somewhere in Pakistan, along with Osama bin Laden, who was foolishly allowed to escape in late 2001.
The Kandahar offensive has been telegraphed for months, giving the Taliban plenty of time to formulate their plans. Did Eisenhower advertise that the landing would be at Normandy in June 1944?
Vice President Joe Biden hosted a dinner for Afghan President Hamid Karzai last Wednesday night at the Naval Observatory. The gathering was seen by many as a fence-mender following months of disagreements between the U.S. and Afghanistan. Biden, as vice president-elect, famously walked out of a dinner with Karzai last year in Kabul.
Here's what turns out to be a big part of the Taliban plans: Assassinating civilian leaders who can be very helpful to the Americans. Which tends to defeat the purpose of the offensive.
Now General Stanley McChrystal is saying that the Kandahar offensive will play out over time, perhaps till the end of the year. That doesn't sound very decisive, does it?
** The Retaliation Factor. Afghanistan, of course, is linked to Pakistan in U.S. plans to counter transnational jihadism, hence the inelegant term "AfPak." With so much U.S. military and intelligence activity centered on the region, retaliation is inevitable. U.S. drone attacks are cutting a bloody swathe through Taliban and Al Qaeda cadre in Pakistan. They're also killing Pakistani civilians.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said repeatedly that the Pakistani Taliban were involved in the botched car bombing in New York's Times Square. The suspect, naturalized American Faisal Shahzad, who has apparently admitted his role to the FBI, reportedly says he received some forms of training while in his native Pakistan last year.
Three Pakistani men suspected of providing money to Times Square car bomb suspect Faisal Shahzad were arrested by the FBI in a series of raids across the Northeast.
Pakistani security officials have made multiple arrests in connection with the attempted Times Square car bombing. And several Pakistanis have been arrested in the Northeastern U.S. in connection with the botched terrorist attack.
As Faisal Shahzad is the son and nephew of high-ranking former Pakistani generals, this is leading to suspicion, a familiar one, that elements of the Pakistani security apparatus are aiding jihadist activities. Given that the U.S. has pushed Pakistan, with significant success, to go after the jihadists in its midst, any linkage to an attempted attack on New York would be very complicating.
This may actually be the Taliban plan, to foment discord in the U.S./Pakistani alliance, especially since Faisal Shahzad was not a well-prepared terrorist.
So what's the bottom line right now?
Clearly, some major elements of the Obama strategy are not adding up. And some things that are working may simply be unsustainable.
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