Obama’s Afghan Policy One Year Later

This Week’s roundtable wonders whether progress has been made in Afghanistan since President Obama announced a troop increase last year.

A year after surging troop levels in Afghanistan by some 40,000, President Barack Obama proclaimed, on a surprise visit to Bagram Air Base after Thanksgiving, that American forces are now “on the offensive.” But is the counterinsurgency strategy, led by General David Petraeus, really working?

Last week, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour that the past year had been a difficult one for the war in Afghanistan. “And I would expect next year to be a very difficult year, as well,” he added. The security situation may have started to change but the tactical gains threaten to be undermined by the eroding credibility of the Afghan government.

Even if American trust in Hamid Karzai’s ability to end corruption is minimal, the Afghan president claims to be confident that the war in his country can be won. “We have to win,” he said in August, “but in order for us to do that, we must end the business as usual and we must begin to reexamine whether we are doing everything correctly.” He specifically mentioned providing security and protection while further reducing civilian casualties.

General Petraeus’ campaign appears to be intensifying by contrast. American combat operations have mounted in number and scope with each passing week. Night raids are up sixfold. Airstrikes nearly doubled. The war is more visible even in parts of the country that used to be least affected and public discontent is increasing as a result.

The situation on the ground, according to Zalmay Khalilzad, who served respectively as Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations during the Bush Administration, is mixed. On the one hand, there is improvement in security locally, in some parts of the country where American and NATO troops are present. On the other, relations with the Afghan government, balancing politics among the tribal factions of the country and targeting the insurgents’ sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan all remain problematic.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, added another dimension. “Is the society, underneath this umbrella warfare, actually making some progress or is it deteriorating?” To assess whether overall progress has been made, he said, Afghan income levels and commercial activity need to be taken into account.

According to ABC study, those economic indicators are actually worsening. That makes it extremely unlikely that the central government in Kabul will gain in strength which is supposed to be a key objective of the American strategy.

After nearly ten years of war however, the people of Afghanistan “have lost their faith,” said Sakena Yacoobi, an Afghan activist for women’s rights. Without the foreign military presence, she warned, “the lives of the women and children will be completely demolished in Afghanistan.”

If Afghanistan remains impoverished; the central government remains corrupt and the Taliban are still strong especially in the south and southeast of the country, is America doomed to fail?

Not necessarily, said Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, former presidential candidate, on Meet the Press. “Afghanistan is just not Vietnam.” The war can be won, he stressed, but the American strategy should not encompass nation building rather focus on fighting terrorism, “with a smaller footprint,” and turn control over to local authorities “as rapidly as possible.”

Transition of security responsibility to the Afghan government is supposed to commence next year. By 2014, the NATO allies agreed in Lisbon, Portugal last month, Western forces are no longer to engage in combat operations. Some will likely remain in the country after that date in an advisory capacity but the “war” is supposed to be over in three years. That means the president “doesn’t have too much time,” said Brzezinski. “Three years is not much.”