National Security Network

After Seven Years of Neglect, Afghanistan Situation Remains Perilous

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Report 24 August 2009

Afghanistan Afghanistan Afghanistan Barack Obama George Bush Vietnam


Afghans and the world are waiting to see whether last week’s election – carried out relatively smoothly but rife with irregularities, voter intimidation, and low turnout – can produce progress against corruption and public disillusionment in Afghan politics. Meanwhile, violence continues to increase as the Taliban threaten large swaths of the country and American and NATO forces attempt to regain territory in southern Afghanistan that the Bush administration had ceded to the Taliban.

Years of neglect from the Bush Administration caused conditions in Afghanistan to grow steadily worse and set the stage for the challenges the Obama Administration is now wrestling with.  Americans and Afghans both deserve a media and public debate that asks hard questions and engages in regular, unvarnished reassessment of the mission.  Both are ill-served when, instead, what we get is a constant refrain of “Obama’s war” and stories that spend more space on lazy Vietnam parallels than on developments on the ground.

War in Afghanistan “deteriorating.”  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen said on CNN’s “State of the Union,”  “I think it is serious and it is deteriorating and I’ve said that over the past couple of years.”  

  • Afghanistan’s elections had turnout down 20-30% from the previous presidential election and “Reports of fraud and intimidation from election-monitoring groups are mounting.”  The Journal continued, “Allegations of fraud could end up eroding Afghanistan's stability, fracturing the part of the Afghan society that is opposed to the Taliban -- and making it even more difficult to contain the insurgency, say those tracking the election.”  
  • This summer has also seen intensified attacks from the country’s insurgency.  July was the deadliest month for allied forces in the eight-year war, and so far there have been 57 coalition fatalities in August, according to The United Nations reports that civilian deaths have increased by 24%.  The Christian Science Monitor also mentions that the report “found that insurgents killed almost twice as many civilians in the first six months of the year as the coalition did (595 deaths against 309).” NATO-ISAF has sought to wrest momentum from the insurgency by embarking on a military offensive in the southern part of the country, but as the New York Times noted this weekend, there is only a “narrow window to win over local people from the guerrillas.” [AP, 8/20/09. Admiral Michael Mullen, 8/24/09. WSJ, 8/24/09., 8/24/09. Christian Science Monitor, 7/31/09. NY Times, 8/23/09]

President Obama inherits mission that for years had suffered under the neglect of the Bush administration. From the beginning, Bush underestimated the required force levels necessary to secure Afghanistan.  According to the New York Times, “[t]he problems began in early 2002... when the United States and its allies failed to take advantage of a sweeping desire among Afghans for help from foreign countries.”  Instead, President Bush diverted attention and resources to Iraq.  According to a Congressional Research Service report from 2008, while the war in Iraq received $608 billion over the past five years, Afghanistan received just $140 billion over Bush’s term in office.  

Back from a stint advising current NATO-ISAF commander General Stanley McChrystal, CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman commented: “this is a war shaped not by strategy but by years of neglect and systematic under-resourcing. More than any other set of problems, what becomes clear in Afghanistan is that for half a decade, we failed to react, failed to provide the troops, failed to provide the money, failed to provide a structure which focused on the war and which, by all of the outside assessments, wasted vast amounts of the aid money, the military money, the efforts of the people engaged on post-conflict reconstruction activities at a time the country drifted steadily towards crisis and war.” Last year, a draft National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that the country was in a “downward spiral,” an assessment which the New York Times called “a harsh verdict on decision making in the Bush administration.”  [NY Times, 9/06/06. CRS, 2/08/08.  Anthony Cordesman, 7/29/09. Foreign Affairs, November/December 2008. NY Times, 10/09/08.  Barack Obama, 8/17/09]

US needs a serious debate about objectives, progress, what’s at stake, instead of warmed-over Vietnam analogies. 
Recently, Morton Abramowitz and other leading foreign policy thinkers have called for deeper media analysis and public debate about the Administration’s Afghanistan policy.  The Administration itself, starting with Defense Secretary Gates, have said that the U.S. has a limited window to show progress in Afghanistan.  The Los Angeles Times reported last month: “After eight years, U.S.-led forces must show progress in Afghanistan by next summer to avoid the public perception that the conflict has become unwinnable, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a sharp critique of the war effort.  Gates said that victory was a ‘long-term prospect’ under any scenario and that the U.S. would not win the war in a year's time. However, U.S. forces must begin to turn the situation around in a year, he said, or face the likely loss of public support.”

Instead, however, the media is fixated on “Obama’s War” and “Obama’s Vietnam” – even if the stories simultaneously acknowledge that “To be sure, such historical analogies are overly simplistic and fatally flawed, if only because each presidency is distinct in its own way.”

If those comparisons are an unhelpful expenditure of ink, what is worth looking at?  First, the roots of the conflict in seven years of neglect and mismanagement.  As the president said before the VFW earlier this month, “The insurgency in Afghanistan didn't just happen overnight and we won't defeat it overnight. This will not be quick, nor easy.” Second, the judgment of what goals are appropriate for US security.  The Administration has repeatedly acknowledged the immense challenges it is confronting in Afghanistan and as a result has scaled back its objectives.  Secretary Gates said in the early days of the administration that, “my view is that we need to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan... If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience and money.” Finally, realistic assessments of how and whether progress is being made.  Moving forward it will be essential that the Administration, Congress, and the American people vigilantly evaluate the situation in Afghanistan and that the Administration provide clear indicators of progress.  [LA Times, 7/19/09. NY Times, 8/23/09. Barack Obama, 8/17/09. Robert Gates, Washington Post, 1/28/09]


What we are reading

 Foreign Policy has a series examining the effects of “twilight of oil.”

The Justice Department’s ethics office has recommended reversing the Bush administration policy and reopening nearly a dozen prisoner-abuse cases.

A CIA Inspector-General’s report to be released today details an internal examination of interrogation methods used on terrorist detainees, including in some cases mock executions and the use of an electric drill. Meanwhile, the White House is set to abandon Bush era interrogation policies by creating a special unit housed at the FBI and overseen by the National Security Council to interrogate suspects.

Major Shiite groups in Iraq have formed a new alliance which excludes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The U.S. is pushing to enforce sanctions against North Korea while leaving room for South Korea to embrace certain areas of economic cooperation with the rogue regime.  South Korea remains skeptical of new “peace” overtures by the North.

Iranian lawmakers approved a bill Sunday creating a $20 million fund intended in part to expose human rights violations by the United States.

A growing row in Britain over the early release of the Lockerbie bomber has led Prime Minister Gordon Brown to defend silence from Downing Street, saying that the issue is “too sensitive to comment on.”

Wildfires continue to rage in Greece as they destroy homes north of Athens.

Commentary of the Day

The Christian Science Monitor examines the higher turnout amongst women voters in Afghanistan.

The Financial Times has a piece from Bruce Ackerman and Oona Hathaway examining how America’s legal arrangement with Iraq is falling apart, and predicting that a referendum next January will lead to an earlier-than-expected withdrawal.

The Times of London looks at the damage caused to Scotland’s reputation and political credibility by the release of the Lockerbie bomber.

A Boston Globe Op-Ed explores the life and death of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, and the nation’s march away from authoritarian rule.