PERSPECTIVES: Gains in Afghanistan 'Fragile and Reversible'

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By Ernest Corea in Washington D.C.

A national poll showing diminished American support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan served as a backdrop to the Obama Administration's rollout of a report outlining progress on the war front. The report recorded gains but was laced with cautionary caveats.

A new ABC-Washington Poll found that 60 percent of Americans consider the war not worth waging, up 7 points from July. Only 34 percent believe that the war has been worth fighting. The 60 point disapproval rating coincides with American attitudes to the war in Iraq during the second term of President George W. Bush.

The drop in support could reflect public disquiet over an increase in American losses. Four hundred and eighty-nine U.S. soldiers died and 4,481 were wounded in 2010. The figures for 2009 were 317 dead and 2114 wounded. Details of past and recent casualties in the Afghan war are available at www.icasualties.org.

Complementing diminished American support for the war, Afghan support for the U.S. troop surge has dropped from 61 percent one year ago to 49 percent. Over half support the withdrawal of foreign troops beginning next year.

Asked specifically at a media briefing how the U.S. could continue to fight a war with public support eroding, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton replied: "I'm well aware of the popular concern and I understand it. But I don't think leaders, and certainly this President, will make decisions that are matters of life and death and the future security of our nation based on polling. That would not be something that you will see him or any of us deciding."

CORE GOAL

The White House report on December 16, meanwhile, said that notable gains were made on all fronts "although these gains remain fragile and reversible." The challenge that the U.S. faced, therefore, was to make the gains "durable and sustainable."

The Afghanistan and Pakistan Annual Review, on which the report is based, was undertaken in response to a directive from President Barack Obama in December 2009 requesting his national security staff to lead a "diagnostic" study of U.S. strategy.

Contributions were drawn from across the U.S. government, and consultations were held with U.S. allies and partners in the region as well. The full review remains classified at this time.

The rollout involved the release of a five-page summary of the review (for full text, please see http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/12/16/overview-afghanistan-and-pakistan-annual-review) and a series of interactions between senior administration representatives and the media. Obama himself, as well as Vice President Biden, Clinton, Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates, and the staff of the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) participated.

Obama was emphatic about the "core goal" of the war in Afghanistan. He said: "It's not to defeat every last threat to the security of Afghanistan, because, ultimately, it is Afghans who must secure their country.
"And it's not nation-building, because it is Afghans who must build their nation. Rather, we are focused on disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and preventing its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future."

Reporting that significant progress had been made towards reaching the "core goal," he explained: "Today, al Qaeda's senior leadership in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan is under more pressure than at any point since they fled Afghanistan nine years ago. Senior leaders have been killed. It's harder for them to recruit; it's harder for them to travel; it's harder for them to train; it's harder for them to plot and launch attacks.

"In short, al Qaeda is hunkered down. It will take time to ultimately defeat al Qaeda, and it remains a ruthless and resilient enemy bent on attacking our country. But make no mistake -- we are going to remain relentless in disrupting and dismantling that terrorist organization."

'SIGNIFICANT PROGRESS'

Acting SRAP Frank Ruggiero, summarizing the findings of the review, said: "in the core objectives in Afghanistan -- or in Pakistan -- the primary objective was to prevent the core al-Qaeda from being a threat to the United States homeland. I think there's been significant progress in taking out the command and control apparatus of core al Qaeda in Pakistan.

"There has been significant activity on the part of the Pakistani military in terms of going after the sanctuaries that are used by al Qaeda and related extremists groups in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and the North-West Frontier Provinces. And in Afghanistan, I think we've made significant progress in stemming the momentum of the Taliban, which was one of the core objectives of the President's strategy, and in some areas, arresting that -- or reversing that momentum.

"So on those two core objectives, we have made progress over the past year, and we've done it in both cases in a civ-mil cooperative fashion with the Department of Defense, specifically in Afghanistan, where over 1,100 American civilians are now deployed to work hand-in-hand at the most basic level in Afghanistan with our military counterparts.

"And in Pakistan, we've done this through really an enhanced strategic partnership that every member of this team has been actively involved in. We've done three of them (partnership meetings) this year, but that has really moved the relationship with Pakistan from one that was transactional in nature to one that is strategic in nature that allows us to achieve greater cooperation with the Government of Pakistan on our shared common strategic objectives."

SAFE HAVENS

All those entrusted with carrying out U.S. strategy would probably have preferred going into print without caveats, but that sense of caution strengthened the report's credibility. It covers a number of "positive" developments but it is by no means an essay in cock-a-hoop triumphalism. Nevertheless, reactions that are less upbeat are in circulation as well.

Eugene Robinson, the Washington Post's award-winning columnist, commented: "The good news is that President Obama's strategy in Afghanistan is on track. The bad news is that the track runs in a circle.
On the eve of the White House report's release, the New York Times said that classified intelligence estimates are even less optimistic, and hold out the possibility of mission failure unless insurgents working out of havens on the Afghan border are hunted down.

This view coincides with unconfirmed speculation in the region that al Qaeda and Taliban operatives carry out ambushes and attacks in Afghanistan and quickly slip back into Pakistan for rest, recreation, and resupply.

MURKY PHASE

Perhaps more chilling than reports from intelligence sources is the assessment of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that .civilian casualties, internal displacement, and insufficient access to medical care, which were all experienced in 2010, will continue well into 2011.

Afghanistan, where the ICRC has been working since 1979, is the site of the organization's largest operation worldwide with over 1,750 staff based in 15 offices, and a budget for 2011 of $89 million.
"In a growing number of areas in the country, we are entering a new, rather murky phase in the conflict in which the proliferation of armed groups threatens the ability of humanitarian organizations to reach the people who need their help," says Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan.

"One armed group may demand food and shelter in the evening, then, the next morning, another may demand to know why its enemy was given sanctuary." The emerging groups, which also include criminals, remain difficult to identify.

"Many people see fleeing as their only solution and many end up in camps for the displaced or with relatives in neighbouring districts," said Stocker.
ICRC reported as well that as the conflict intensified and expanded geographically, so have civilian casualties once again increased in comparison with previous years. Mirwais Regional Hospital in Kandahar, serving around four million people, has admitted over 2,650 weapon-wounded patients so far in 2010, compared with just over 2,100 in 2009.

FRACTURED POLITY

Obama inherited the war in Afghanistan but he cannot now disown it. In fact, during the presidential campaign he implied that it was not a "dumb war" -- unlike the war in Iraq -- and indicated that if elected he would provide U.S. forces with what was needed for them to actually accomplish the mission of "disrupting, dismantling and defeating" al-Qaeda.

Was he snookered into taking that position in public? His opponents constantly suggested that he was ignorant, inept, and unprepared, perhaps unwilling as well, to protect the country from its enemies. Taking a tough stance on Afghanistan was reassuring to many. His liberal supporters who now would prefer that the U.S. cuts and runs from Afghanistan did not overtly oppose his sentiments, presumably supposing that this was "just politics."

Now, it turns out, bringing the war in Afghanistan to a successful conclusion is more than a military matter. It includes, for instance, engaging with a wobbly partner in Kabul, and coping with Pakistan's fractured polity. As well, it involves continuously maintaining the support of 49 partners many of whose publics would prefer not to be part of the war at all. The war also consumes horrendous expenditure while the U.S. and others grapple with a recession that won't quite go away.

Some inheritance. - IDN-InDepthNews

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