I spelled out my many continuing and serious concerns about the Afghanistan war in a post published on June 24th. I feel even more concerned now and would not at all be surprised if President Obama is already thinking about having one of his most trusted aides begin drafting up a highly confidential exit strategy. As I see it, this would be in anticipation of his planned December meeting with Defense Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, and General Petraeus to discuss the latter's war strategy review.
Why do I think Obama may be doing this? There are many reasons and several are discussed in Bob Woodward's newest book, "Obama's Wars", released just a week or so ago. The war is still not going well with almost daily reports of Taliban or other terrorist group attacks and continuing coalition casualties. One would have to be very skeptical of any claim at this point that we are winning the war. Cooperation with President Karzai, who has met recently with Taliban moderates and certain warlords to see if they can work out a joint political program, remains problematic.
Almost everyone agrees there is no real military solution in Afghanistan. Just a political one. Obama's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, recently stated that no political deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban can be successful without clear Pakistan support. Many of the top Taliban leaders are believed to be based in Pakistan. Furthermore, there is widespread belief that elements within Pakistan's CIA, called Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are closely collaborating with the Taliban, even though we consider the Pakistan government a close ally of ours and we provide the government and military with billions in financial aid. However, the collaboration is denied by senior government representatives. All these factors make for a very complicated and fragile situation.
Obama has a large number of other important issues to deal with over the next few months that will require much of his time, starting with the upcoming mid-term elections that could give control of the House of Representatives, if not also the Senate, though that's less likely, to the Republicans. Another critical issue for him is the outcome of the very difficult peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that, not surprisingly, are not going well. Another important issue is rebuilding and realigning responsibilities for his senior staff in the White House, following several key departures, with rumors that Secretary Gates and Obama's National Security Adviser, General Jones, may be leaving in the next several months as well.
In terms of more direct evidence, according to Woodward's book, Obama recently was quoted as saying that he wants an exit strategy. Reportedly Obama said "This needs to be a plan about how we're going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan." Moreover, the White House is populated by Democratic political aides who don't want to continue the war who were reportedly outvoted by Secretary of State Clinton and Pentagon counterinsurgency enthusiasts last December when the escalation strategy was agreed to. There is no doubt the next three months will be extremely difficult for both Obama and Petraeus personally. Very probably it will also be very difficult for our 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, which is even more disturbing.
It is apparently generally accepted by those experienced in counterinsurgency strategy that if the government side is not winning against the rebels, it's losing. A tie goes to the insurgents. That would be the Taliban and other terrorists. A Taliban spokesman has reportedly said that while the U. S. and our coalition allies have watches, the Taliban have the time. They know the American public is increasingly unhappy with this war and that this will pressure the government to withdraw at least the bulk of our forces within the next two to three years, if not sooner, beginning next August. So the Taliban can be patient.
Unfortunately the odds are not in our favor to achieve a political "victory" either. That has been defined as development of Afghanistan as a viable democracy that can remain independent and at peace, with a competent publicly elected government that can provide basic services to all its people. This apparently will require a workable agreement with at least moderate elements of the Taliban, clearly supported by Pakistan, and include many of their leaders in a new coalition government. It will probably also require a significant amount of further foreign financial aid and advisory services. If the Taliban continue to be successful with their insurgent attacks over the next several months, my guess is that they will not want to negotiate with the Afghan Government. If Pakistan doesn't step up in a unified manner supporting the U. S. and Afghanistan, a victory is not going to have much of a chance.
Another path to a sort of "victory" would to my mind be if in the near term we could somehow deal a death blow to Al Qaeda, including killing or capturing Osama bin Laden, Chief of Operations Adnan Gulshair el Shukrijumah, and Deputy Operations Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Given how long we've been trying to do that without success, it obviously won't be easy. We would need luck, reliable informants, and assistance from Pakistan's military and ISI. We'll take any and all of those.
We need to pursue both paths urgently with a great priority being limiting civilian and American and coalition casualties. The earlier we can get any kind of honorable "victory", and get at least all our combat troops out of there, the better. I trust the great majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents can all agree on that.