Thursday, April 30, 2015

This is the End for Both the Democrats and the Long U.S. War in Afghanistan

Democrats' hopes of holding onto the White House seem remote. Obama is in free fall. Anti-police #Black Lives Matter protests continue, now in their second year. When I got off the train last night and scooted up the escalator, a couple of officers from the King County Sheriff's Department stood at the entrance to the transit station. A sure sign that a protest was underway. Last year, beginning with Thanksgiving and the riots in Ferguson, the police stayed on the streets for a month, a massive display of force for the holiday shoppers.

The cities are protesting and Obama is trying to have it both ways, poo-pooing rioters while explaining the conditions -- drug abuse, broken homes, underdevelopment of black communities in the inner-city -- that make riot necessary. But Obama does not call out the system by name --institutional racism. The Kerner Commission Report identified the problems 50 years ago in the wake of the riots of 1967 and articulated solutions, principally economic investment. Half-a-century later solutions remain unimplemented, a huge failure.

Obama is paying out what little political currency he has left to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership  through Congress. In order to do so he is going to have to rely on Republican votes. In many ways the last year of Obama's presidency is shaping up to look like Bill Clinton's, and we know how that turned out for Democrats.

The difference between Obama and Clinton is that Clinton was waging war in a relatively modest manner, bombing Yugoslavia into submission and terrorizing Iraq. Obama has more wars on his hands than we can count.

The one that kicked it all off for Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, is promising to provide a spectacular failure for Obama as he exits the White House. U.S. forces in Afghanistan, despite the administration's declaration of the end of combat operations there at the end of last year, are actively engaging the Taliban in attempt to keep the government of Ashraf Ghani from losing large chunks of territory.

Two stories over the last two days -- Mujib Mashal and Jawad Sukhanyar, "Afghan Troops Rush to Kunduz Amid Taliban Assault"; Azam Ahmed and Joseph Goldstein, "Taliban Gains Pull U.S. Units Back Into Fight in Afghanistan" -- depict a dire situation. The coalition government of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Adbullah is not fully functional after more than half a year. There is still no defense minister even though the Taliban spring offensive has jumped off to an earlier than expected start with the provincial capital of Kunduz threatened.

As Ahmed and Goldstein explain, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Campbell is basically acting as Ghani's defense minister, and this despite the declared end of a U.S. combat role:
As early as January, when officials in Washington were hailing the end of the combat mission, about 40 American Special Operations troops were deployed to Kunar Province to advise Afghan forces that were engaged with the Taliban over a handful of villages along the border with Pakistan.
With the troops on the ground, the command for the American-led coalition called in airstrikes under the authority of force protection, according to two Western military officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details of the operation were not public.
“They are putting guys on the ground in places to justify the airstrikes,” one of the officials said. “It’s not force protection when they are going on the offensive.”
Commenting on the continuing military operations against the Taliban, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, vehemently denied accusations that he was putting troops into harm’s way just to enable more airstrikes.
He has insisted that it is within his purview to target Taliban insurgents who pose a threat not just to American or NATO troops but to any Afghan security forces. And his options on the ground were clear, he said in an interview, even if Washington’s public description of them was not.
“Washington is going to have to say what they say politically for many different audiences, and I have no issue with that,” General Campbell said. “I understand my authorities and what I have to do with Afghanistan’s forces and my forces. And if that doesn’t sell good for a media piece then, again, I can’t worry about it.”
He added: “Combat and war and transition, as you know, it’s a very complex thing. For me, it’s not black and white.”
The operations are continuing during a troubling stretch for the Afghan security forces, as the Taliban are continuing to make gains. Members of the nation’s military and police forces were killed by the insurgents at a high rate last year. And in the first three months of this year, things already appeared worse: The casualty rate rose 54 percent over the same period last year, according to one Western and one Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the figures were not public.
The danger was highlighted in recent days in the northern province of Kunduz, where the Afghan Army has been forced to send thousands of reinforcements to beat back a major Taliban offensive. In addition to threatening to claim at least one district, the insurgents have come within a few miles of the provincial capital, officials in Kunduz said. Coalition forces deployed jets to the area in a show of force but no munitions were dropped, officials said.
In that environment, American military officials have been reluctant to let go of the war, arguing that their involvement remains necessary given the Taliban threat and changing regional factors.
But in March, when Mr. Obama and President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan publicly announced that they had agreed to slow the withdrawal of American troops, administration officials emphasized that counterterrorism and training were still the focus, not everyday combat missions against the Taliban. The idea of the extended timeline was to bolster the ability of Afghans to fight, officials said, not to directly fight on their behalf.
Now, though, the distance seems to be widening between the administration’s public statements and what the military appears to be doing, whether at the behest of the White House or on its own, officials here said.
“What I’m thankful for is that I have the authority and flexibility to make those very tough decisions,” General Campbell said. “They could have said, ‘Every time you hit a target, you have to get approval.’ ”
Still, General Campbell has found strong support from Mr. Ghani, who became the president in September. Many officials characterize their relationship as a strikingly close partnership: General Campbell visits the president nearly every day — more than any other Western official in the country — and the commander’s staff has been tasked with not only helping to write policy for the Afghan forces but also helping direct overall strategy, at a time when the war is meant to be entirely in the hands of the Afghans.
Some Western officials have privately expressed discomfort with the American role and questioned how prolonging the American strategy in Afghanistan would be more effective this year than it was in the past 13.
“I’m not surprised they are continuing in this way,” said one Western diplomat living in Kabul. “What’s surprising is how much of it they’re doing.”
For an idea of the "thumb in the dike" nature of expanded U.S. airstrikes, read the Mashal and Sukhanyar story about the Taliban offensive in Kunduz. One thing that is apparent from their report is that there is a deep fissure in the Afghan force structure. The Afghan Local Police, militias set up and funded by the U.S., are often at odds with the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. (There is an excellent short film produced by The New York Times that documents this.) According to Mashal and Sukhanyar,
The intensity of the violence around Kunduz sent the government scrambling to respond, with three high-level visits to Kunduz on Monday alone, and with confusion and dissension reported among some of the forces fighting back against the insurgents.
The provincial head of the Afghan Local Police, militia forces that have often been on the front lines of fighting against the Taliban, was scornful. “The army and the police don’t coordinate the operations with the A.L.P.,” said the forces’ leader, Sayed Dawood Hashemi. “We are used as firewood in the fighting.”
Despite requests for assistance from the security forces, one A.L.P. unit with dozens of men was forced to retreat from the neighborhood of Talawka, on the outskirts of Kunduz, allowing Taliban fighters to flood in, according to a member of the provincial council. Elsewhere, 26 A.L.P. fighters have been captured by the Taliban and two killed, Mr. Hashemi said.
Intense fighting started relatively early this year. Two weeks before the official start of their spring offensive, the Taliban attacked Afghan Army positions in remote Badakhshan Province, with hundreds of fighters overrunning Jurm District, abducting and killing dozens of soldiers, some of whom were reportedly beheaded. The government says it has begun a counteroffensive in Badakhshan, even as heavy fighting has been reported in several other northern provinces, including Sar-i-Pul, Jowzjan and Faryab.
With so many battles raging across the country, visiting army officials have told provincial council members in Kunduz that the best they can do is push back the enemy a bit, and that they cannot afford to sustain a longer operation, according to Mr. Ayoubi, the council chief in Kunduz.
In the meantime, irregular militias that were once funded by the United States as bastions against the Taliban have largely been on their own.
In Qala-i-Zal District, the 300 men under a commander named Nabi Gechi have been trying to fend off the Taliban advance. After five days of sustained small-arms and mortar fire from the insurgents, Mr. Gechi said, his militia was forced to retreat from one of its posts, with three men killed and a dozen wounded.
“The people of Qala-i-Zal are paying for the ammunition and food to supply us enough so we can stand up to the Taliban attacks,” he said.
Not only is there a war with the Taliban, but there is a war within the U.S.-created Afghan state between local and national armed forces. This cannot end well. The question is when will it collapse not if it will collapse.

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