In Pakistan, the situation is just barely better. There is a democratic government, besieged by Islamists and beset by India. Its leaders are murdered on a pretty regular basis, and its writ doesn't run to the border areas with Afghanistan.
Barack Obama proposes to save both countries. What would it really take to do that, and is it at all possible?
Peter Goodspeed, National Post Published: Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Twenty years ago last Sunday, General Boris Gromov drove the last Soviet armoured personnel carrier out of Afghanistan, crossing a bridge over the Amu Darya River into Soviet Uzbekistan.
Greeted with kisses and garlanded with bouquets of carnations, he, nevertheless, was a symbol of abject defeat. After nine years of vicious fighting, in which up to 110,000 Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan, killing a million Afghans and losing 15,000 soldiers themselves in the process, the badly demoralized Soviet army abandoned the country to another decade of civil war and chaos.
Now, fears are growing that the United States and NATO may be making exactly the same sort of mistakes as the Soviets.
Seven years after U.S. and allied troops drove the Taliban from power, Afghanistan is ensnared in an increasingly violent insurgency that threatens both Kabul and nuclear-armed Pakistan. The country is threatened by new waves of suicide attacks, roadside bombings and assassinations of key Kabul-appointed officials.
Operating from safe havens across the border in Pakistan, the Taliban occupy 72% of the country and run shadow governments and courts that challenge local officials.
Riddled with corruption, poverty and despair, Afghanistan has deteriorated into a "narco-state" that provides 90% of the world's illegal opium.
Like the Soviets before them, the United States and NATO control Afghanistan's cities but are unable to maintain a decisive presence in the hinterland.
"There is no mistake made by the Soviet Union that was not repeated by the international community here in Afghanistan," says Zamir Kabulov, Russia's current ambassador to Kabul.
"They have already repeated all our mistakes. Now, they are making mistakes of their own," says Mr. Kabulov, who was the KGB station chief in Kabul during the Soviet occupation.
U.S. President Barack Obama wants to change that. He has vowed to make Afghanistan the centerpiece of his foreign policy, declaring it "the central front in the war on terror."
Promising "a robust military effort," he is preparing to dispatch an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, while insisting the United States and its allies need to reassess their strategy.
Unable to win a decisive military victory or to withdraw abruptly without facing potentially catastrophic consequences, Mr. Obama is determined to overhaul U.S. policy in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan completely before a crucial NATO summit in Strasbourg, France, in April.
If Iraq was known as "Bush's War," Afghanistan is definitely about to become "Obama's War." It could come to define Mr. Obama's presidency.
"The window of opportunity for expansive nation building in Afghanistan has closed," says Roland Paris, director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa. "Deteriorating security conditions and declining public support for the international mission require a more focused, modest set of goals.
"The situation has become urgent. More NATO troops are certainly needed, but the deployment of additional forces will not, in itself reverse the slide toward defeat. A new approach is needed to the mission."
Two weeks ago, as he testified before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared previous U.S. goals for Afghanistan were "overly ambitious" and "too broad and too far into the future."
"If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose," he said.
Since Mr. Obama won the presidential election in November, Washington has been swamped with experts undertaking reviews aimed at changing the trajectory of the Afghan war. Richard Holbrooke, Mr. Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Army General David Petraeus, head of Central Command, and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are all conducting their own reviews. This week the White House appointed Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official, to chair an inter-agency policy review committee to assess all work on Afghanistan.
So far, there seems to be a consensus view that the war in Afghanistan suffered from a lack of resources and manpower as a result of the U.S.'s pre-occupation with the war in Iraq.
But there is also a growing disenchantment in Washington with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Once the darling of the West, he is no longer assured of the unwavering support he enjoyed from former U.S. president George W. Bush. During the presidential election, Mr. Obama criticized Mr. Karzai's government as being unreliable and ineffective, saying it "had not gotten out of the bunker and helped organize Afghanistan."
Before he was appointed special envoy, Mr. Holbrooke wrote a withering criticism of U.S. policy in Afghanistan in the Septemebr issue of Foreign Affairs magazine in which he bluntly claimed Afghanistan's "central government has shown that it is simply not up to the job."
"As the war enters its eighth year, Americans should be told the truth," Mr. Holbrooke said. "It will last a long time - longer than the United States' longest war to date, the 14-year conflict [1961-1975] in Vietnam. Success will require new policies with regard to four major problem areas: the tribal areas in Pakistan, the drug lords who dominate the Afghan system, the national police, and the incompetence and corruption of the Afghan government."
A long series of well-placed leaks and snubs have left little doubt that the relationship with Mr. Karzai has soured. Last October, a leaked U.S. intellignece report identified Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan President's half-brother, as a major drug trafficker. Senior U.S. officials repeatedly express doubts over Mr. Karzai's ability or willingness to rein in corruption, to improve law and order and to confront warlords who exploit a thriving opium trade.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer wrote recently in the Washington Post, "Afghan leadership is not some distant aspiration – it's something that we need as soon as possible and on which we must insist. The basic problem in Afghanistan is not too much Taliban; it's too little good governance."
If Afghans were given a government that deserved their loyalty and trust "the oxygen will be sucked away from the insurgency," he predicted.
"Nothing will sap the insurgency's power as effectively over the long term as a positive, tangible alternative to Taliban rule that is based on physical security, the provision of basic services and accountable, non-predatory governance," says a recent policy brief by the Center for New American Security, a Washington think-tank with close ties to the Obama White House.
For now, Mr. Karzai seems bent on further alienating his Western allies.When he opened parliament on Jan. 23, he delivered a blistering speech that attacked the conduct of the U.S.-led war, complaining Washington and NATO undermine his government by ignoring its authority and overlooking corruption and waste in their own aid programs. He also criticized U.S. and NATO military tactics, claiming air strikes were killing too many civilians.
Recently, Mr. Karzai sent U.S. and NATO officials a document outling possible new rules of engagement in which Afghan officials would control where and how foreign troops were deployed. Mr. Karzai is demanding co-ordination at "the highest level" on the use of air strikes and wants to stop having allied troops search Afghan homes or arrest Afghans.
The move may be a calculated election ploy to bolster Mr. Karzai's chances in presidential elections that were recently rescheduled for Aug. 20. But it could set the Afghan president on a collision course with Washington as Mr. Obama prepares to order a "surge" of three new combat brigades into Afghanistan starting this spring.
While a lack of progress in Afghanistan threatens to undermine Western support for the NATO mission there, experts agree military operations need to be beefed up to reverse the Taliban's recent gains, but they stress the ultimate solution lies in creating a viable, long-term Afghan alternative to the Taliban.
"We need to get back to basics," says J. Alexander Their of the United States Institute of Peace. "Establish security, create a conducive regional environment, build basic governmental legitimacy, engage the citizenry, create economic opportunity - these are the building blocks of a virtuous cycle that will broaden opportunity for ordinary Afghans while narrowing the space for insurgents."