If President Barack Obama is serious about finding out whether a political settlement of the war in Afghanistan is possible in 2011, he’d use the scheduled review of US Afghanistan policy to order a ceasefire, halt the faltering offensive in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, put an end to the lethal night raids by US Special Forces that have killed hundreds of low-level insurgents, and stop the drone-fired missile attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the other side of the border.
And then he could press Pakistan to bring insurgent leaders to the bargaining table for direct talks with the United States, including the Quetta Shura Taliban, the Islamic Party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the forces led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, all of whom have close ties to Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI).
He should – but he won’t.
Sometime in mid-December, the president will meet with his senior national security team to evaluate the war’s progress. It’s virtually certain that Obama’s year-end review will result in no change of policy, no course corrections, and a commitment to remain engaged in combat until 2014 and beyond.
That’s not because Obama’s strategy is working.
By all accounts – except the US military’s overly optimistic reports – that progress is nil. After tripling the level of American forces in a year and launching offensives in Helmand and Kandahar, the Taliban insurgency continues to grow, spreading from its southern stronghold and the areas east of Kabul into Afghanistan’s previously calm northern provinces.Kabul is surrounded to the east, south and west by Taliban-controlled areas, and the insurgents can strike the capital itself with gunmen and suicide bombers at will. The Afghan government has little or no influence over provincial and district administrations anywhere in the country, and the Afghan National Army is unable to operate except as a cosmetic accompaniment to the United States and NATO.
Last December, when he announced the second of two escalations of the war in 2009, Obama placated the liberals, antiwar activists, and Congressional Democrats who are his political base by promising to begin drawing down US forces in July 2011. Since then, the Pentagon has mightily resisted that deadline, and key officials such as Gen.David Petraeus and Secretary of Defence Robert Gates have emphasized that any withdrawal will be dependent on conditions on the ground. In November, after Petraeus delivered a rosy report to the NATO summit in Lisbon, the United States, NATO, and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan agreed that the foreign forces would remain engaged in combat until at least 2014, and a senior NATO official declared that the combat forces would likely remain through 2015 and possibly longer.
In any case, Obama has never made clear how, exactly, conditions might affect the withdrawal. If, by July 2011, clear and indisputable progress has been made, does that mean that the White House will decide to maintain forces at or near current levels in order to consolidate the gains that will have been made? Or, on the other hand, if by then it’s clear that the Taliban is stronger than ever, or that the Taliban has strengthened its grip on large swaths of Afghanistan, does that mean that the United States will maintain forces at current levels, or even increase them, in order to avoid complete defeat? It isn’t clear. Indeed, success or failure,it’s likely that Obama will want to sustain the war.