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Our Man In Kabul: Backbiting On the Eve of the New Obama Strategy for Afghanistan

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Ten days before his inauguration as vice president, Joe Biden went to Afghanistan to study the situation and deliver some messages to the current government.

With the Obama administration's strategic review of the Afghanistan crisis nearly complete -- the report should be out sometime next week -- the Afghan government seems pretty unhappy.

And not just about the situation in the country, which is not good, with successful Taliban attacks taking place even in the capital city of Kabul.

The current government, under the Bush/Cheney administration's choice for president, Hamid Karzai, seems disgruntled about a likely change in direction under President Barack Obama.

Publicly, Karzai supports Obama. But some of his top officials this week undermined likely key elements in the new strategy.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai says publicly that he supports the emerging Obama plan. But his key lieutenants trashed it this week.

Basically, the Obama administration seems poised to change the focus of the American mission in Afghanistan from nation-building to counter-terrorism. And to push ahead to new elections in August. Which would leave Karzai and company in an even more precarious position, although it's not clear who can replace Karzai.

Ironically, George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 decrying the supposed nation-building activities of the Clinton administration. Only to adopt a far more expansive and expensive policy of just that during his eight years as president.

In a speech Wednesday night at Harvard, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, Said Jawad, ripped his country's Western allies as defeatist. He said that those who say they're not winning the war in Afghanistan against the resurgent Taliban "should know that they never fully tried."

With the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating, President Barack Obama ordered 17,000 additional US troops to deploy there. That's about half the number originally requested by the commander there, General David McKiernan.

The US has spent some $173 billion on military operations in Afghanistan since 9/11. Another $35 billion has been spent on reconstruction. Nearly 700 American troops have been killed in Afghanistan, along with over 400 dead amongst the ranks of NATO allies fighting there.

Responding to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry's statement last month that the US should be "realistic" and return to its "original mission" of counterinsurgency and rooting out Al Qaeda, Jawad upheld the Bush/Cheney mission of nation-building and ripped the more limited agenda outlined by Kerry, an agenda likely to be reflected in the new Obama strategy.

"To suggest that Afghans do not deserve peace, pluralism and human rights is wrong and racist," Jawad said.

He rejected emerging US plans to recruit and beef up tribal forces -- much as was done in Iraq -- to fight against Islamic extremists in Afghanistan, saying that it "will not work." Whether it works or not, it would likely undermine the power base of the Karzai government in the run-up to national elections, which may be the real objection.

The Aghan ambassador also rejected statements by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden that the US will seek negotiations with more moderate elements of the Taliban, saying that such negotiations should be conducted by the Afghan government. And that they should not take place until it's in "a position of strength."

Presumably after an even larger US and NATO military force pushes back the Taliban on its behalf.

A retired Soviet general recalled how difficult the fight was in Afghanistan when the late Soviet Union tried to control the country.

Yesterday, Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta said in Kabul that it should be his government that negotiates with the Taliban, not the US. And that it will only negotiate with Taliban members who have stopped fighting.

After that, he stopped contradicting the signals emanating from Obama and Biden, backing up what Biden said early in the week in an address to the North Atlantic Council in Brussels, Belgium.

"Taliban are not a single group but a mixture of an opium mafia, a kidnapping mafia, international terrorists with Al-Qaeda and its factions, Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban and others," Spanta told reporters.

On a diplomatic offensive with NATO and European allies in Brussels at the beginning of the week, Biden said that most of the Taliban presently confounding US plans in Afghanistan could be engaged because they are not committed Islamist radicals.

Biden said the same tactics used in Anbar province in Iraq, where radical Sunni Muslims were co-opted by American financial support, could work in Afghanistan as part of President Barack Obama's strategy for winning the war raging since 2001.

"Five percent of the Taliban is incorrigible, not susceptible to anything other than being defeated," Biden told a press conference at North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels at the beginning of the week. "Another 25 percent or so are not quite sure, in my view, of the intensity of their commitment to the insurgency. Roughly 70 percent are involved because of the money."

Biden warned that Islamic jihadist groups are using Afghanistan and Pakistan as staging areas to plot new attacks against allied interests around the world. "It is from this same area that Al Qaeda and its extremist allies are regenerating and conceiving new atrocities to visit upon us," Biden said.

Increasingly, it looks like the 17,000 additional US troops being sent to Afghanistan are there to buy time in a bid to bring some stability the country in advance of a deal that denies it as a base for Islamic jihadist terrorist attacks but reaches a compromise with elements of the Taliban.

And this more limited mission is what is giving our man in Kabul and his lieutenants so much heartburn.

Not that they haven't already been negotiating with the Taliban.

Al Jazeera reported last month on secret talks between the Afghan government and Taliban leaders, including one of the most vehemently anti-US figures.

Al Jazeera reported last month that the Afghan government, with British involvement, is negotiating with elements of the Taliban leadership, including one of its most vehement anti-US figures, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who backed terrorist attacks on US forces. It may be that most anyone is on the table, with the exception, as the US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, noted on Wednesday, of Taliban leader and close bin Laden ally Mullah Omar himself, who was deposed from power in Afghanistan in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The Karzai government has been ineffective in doing much outside a few cities. Many reports have it shot through with corruption. But it's not clear what replaces it.

We should know what the new US strategy is sometime next week. But a few things seem clear now. The US is looking for compromise, to attain more limited goals in Afghanistan of denying the country as a safe haven for jihadists. Some US generals have spoken of a truce in Afghanistan.

But the current government is digging in its heels as it's being dragged into this new reality.

Without a reliable partner in Kabul, even attaining the more limited objectives will be all the more difficult. And that's without factoring in the increasingly unstable and interrelated situation in neighboring Pakistan.


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