Afghanistan may already be lost

President Obama wants to try a new approach to beat back the Taliban, but some analysts think the war can't be won

Published September 10, 2009 10:10AM (EDT)

A U.S. soldier attached to Marines from Delta Company of 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion patrols through dust along with other U.S. Marines near the town of Khan Neshin in Rig district of Helmand province, southern Afghanistan September 9, 2009
A U.S. soldier attached to Marines from Delta Company of 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion patrols through dust along with other U.S. Marines near the town of Khan Neshin in Rig district of Helmand province, southern Afghanistan September 9, 2009

The images are shaky, but you can see things well enough to recognize that something is not right. And then it happens: An armored car belonging to Western forces races through the streets of an Afghan city. Panicked civilians scramble to get out of the way. A civilian car moves into the lane ahead of the military vehicle. The machine gunner aims, fires and scores a hit.

The military vehicle then races away while a number of Afghans run over to the attacked car, which is now in flames. They can be seen yelling and waving their arms frantically. Some of them try to help injured passengers out of the car.

"How many new insurgents is this patrol likely to have produced today?" a quiet voice asks in the darkened screening room. It belongs to Stanley McChrystal, 55, the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. They call him "McThree," as his predecessors' names were McNeill and McKiernan.

The four-star general is tall and lean. He is said to need only a few hours of sleep and to skip breakfast and lunch, eating only once a day, always in the evening. He does this in order to be wide awake at all times during the day.

Born into a military family, McChrystal chose to serve with the U.S. Special Forces and commanded its secret operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for several years. It was his men who found Saddam Hussein and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a key al-Qaida operative in Iraq. His track record lends him authority.

Unsparing self-criticism
McChrystal is seated in a conference room at the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force with the force commanders responsible for the western, eastern, southern, and northern sectors, as well as for Kabul province. He shows them half a dozen film clips like the one in which a patrol vehicle machine-gunned a civilian car. Some of the videos were downloaded from YouTube. They are embarrassing, painful scenes documenting the fact that Western soldiers actually do insult, wound and kill Afghan civilians. This is why the West is not having any success in Afghanistan, McChrystal says. "We need to change."

Slightly less than eight years after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the time has come for unsparing self-criticism. America has gone the furthest in this. No wonder: This war has now become Barack Obama's war. He has put additional troops on the ground. The military has changed its strategy and is attempting to be more careful about calling in air strikes when there is a chance that civilians could be affected as well.

Tragically, information came in from Afghanistan last Friday indicating that, once again, civilians had been killed in a NATO air strike. As it turned out, a German army officer called in a U.S. air strike after finding out that two fuel tankers had been stolen by the Taliban near Kunduz. The reasoning given for ordering an aerial attack was that the Taliban could potentially use the fuel trucks to attack the German camp in Kunduz. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hit back on Tuesday at NATO allies that have criticized the air strike, saying Germany would not tolerate accusations before a full investigation had been conducted.

Because of incidents like this, among other factors, public support for the mission -- which received broad international backing when it began -- is gradually being undermined. According to recent polls, more than half of all Americans are now against the war in Afghanistan, and only 25 percent support President Obama's plan to send more soldiers into the area.

Increasing doubts
In Western countries, doubts about the point of the mission have been increasing. Promoting democracy? The results of the recent presidential election aren't scheduled to be announced until Sept. 17, but it is already clear that they are going to be distorted by the ballot-box stuffing, false vote counts and vote buying that went on, on a massive scale. The incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is in the lead. He was the candidate favored by the West, a hope for progress in the country, a man who had a good relationship with America and a support base in Afghanistan. This is pretty much gone now. Karzai has lost much of the confidence the West had in him.

More than 100,000 foreign troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan, nearly 62,000 from the United States and the remaining 40,000 from the other NATO countries. The German contingent numbers around 4,000. The U.S. forces have shouldered a large part of the burden with regard to combat operations.

In a secret strategy paper, McChrystal has laid out for Obama and NATO some of the things that, in his view, need to be changed so that Afghanistan, like Iraq, can become at least a partial success for the West. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told him he can ask for anything he feels is necessary to get the job done, even including more soldiers if necessary. McChrystal apparently only wants to modify force structures for the time being, sending some noncombatant personnel home and replacing them with combat troops.

A controversy has broken out in the Obama administration over priorities in the region. Hillary Clinton has pleaded in favor of sending in more soldiers and strengthening the focus on Afghanistan, while Vice President Joe Biden has warned against losing sight of the importance of Pakistan, an unstable nuclear power that serves as a safe haven for the Taliban and al-Qaida.

The last chance
McChrystal is responsible for turning the tide in Afghanistan. His new strategy may be the last chance to turn things around militarily in the Hindu Kush. The Dutch and Canadian governments have announced that they intend to withdraw their contingents by the year 2011. Canadian forces stationed in Kandahar have lost 128 of their soldiers. British troops stationed in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the center of opium poppy production, have had 212 of their men killed. The death toll appears to have brought about a significant change in the way the British view the military effort in Afghanistan. In an editorial published in July, in which it predicted the British public would soon decide the war is not worth the casualties, the Observer newspaper wrote: "Lives saved by bringing soldiers home will seem a surer benefit than the unproven hypothesis of preventing terrorism with a war thousands of miles away."

The Obama administration seems determined to expand the military effort and then to make an assessment as to whether or not progress can be made that way. NATO was informed by diplomatic sources that the United States wants to move a combat force of about 45,000 men from Iraq to Afghanistan -- in part as replacements for troops rotated out and in part as reinforcements. The same sources indicated that the Europeans would be expected to help by providing additional forces, more reconstruction assistance and increased funding. The Obama administration wants to wait until after the general election in Germany on Sept. 27 before officially announcing its wishes.

The magic word "surge" is making the rounds in Kabul, just as it did in Iraq. However, this will involve civilian personnel for the most part. McChrystal wants to send advisors and reconstruction specialists not just to Kabul and the provincial capitals but also to remote districts and villages. They are to develop relationships with the clans and village elders and to build confidence. They are also to find out if there are any Taliban willing to engage in talks and determine whether it is possible to distinguish between fundamentalists and moderates who would be willing to negotiate.

The United States was able to make progress in Iraq by taking this more patient approach. But will this be possible in Afghanistan?

There are some who say it's as good as over in Afghanistan. The confidence of the general population has been lost; too many civilians have been killed. This is the way Thomas Ruttig, a member of a group of experts known as the Afghanistan Analysts Network, sees the situation. Having served as an election observer in Paktia province, he now says that, in his view, the Afghans don't need agricultural experts from Kentucky. They need to have their fields cleared of mines; they need loans so that they can pay for irrigation systems, fertilizer, and seeds; they need functioning markets -- and more than anything else they need peace.

Missed objectives
There are numerous things that have gone right in Afghanistan since the fall of 2001. But many major objectives have not been achieved. Osama bin Laden got away. Al-Qaida simply moved a few hundred kilometers away and set up new training camps in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. The political system in Afghanistan continues to be largely a farce. Court decisions can be bought. Most of the women who live in rural areas continue to have no rights. The Afghan police don't protect their citizens. More often than not they use their powers as law enforcement officers to squeeze money out of the populace. Administrative officials won't do anything unless they are paid bribes and often use their positions of power to make life hard for people.

The fraud perpetrated during Afghanistan's second presidential election was systematically organized in some parts of the country. This was seen to by the candidates' regional networks. An investigative commission is examining around 700 complaints that have been judged to be relevant.

There is the case of Delaga Bariz, district chief of Shorabak in Kandahar province, who maintains that ballot boxes were stuffed with 23,900 votes for Karzai. Allegedly the Bariz tribesmen in Shorabak had decided to vote for Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's strongest rival. But then some of Karzai's people showed up and took the ballot boxes to Kabul, Delaga Bariz says.

The independent Afghanistan Analysts Network documented a case from the area around the town of Spin Boldak in the south. There the head of the border police had promised to monitor the election personally in six districts. The night before Aug. 20, a large number of ballot boxes were brought to his home and members of the independent election commission are said to have been urged to fill them with votes for the incumbent president. On Election Day, the police chief took the filled ballot boxes to official polling stations for counting.

President Karzai's younger brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, lives in Kandahar. As head of the provincial council, he is one of the most powerful figures in the region and organizes political support for his brother. But he claims not to have had anything to do with the election fraud.

Insubordination and criticism
The relationship between President Karzai and Washington had cooled considerably by the end of the Bush era, as a result of weariness and disappointment on both sides. Karzai repeatedly expressed scathing public criticism of reckless bombardments by U.S. planes in which Afghan civilians regularly died. But the Americans had expected gratitude and loyalty from him, not what they saw as insubordination and criticism.

The Obama administration immediately put even more distance between itself and the West's former favorite. Karzai had sought and formed sordid alliances with war criminals and drug barons for the purpose of preserving his power. He had also taken steps to distance himself from the West. Few people today would consider him a true democrat -- anyone who thought so was mistaken right from the start.

Now the State Department has announced that, if Karzai is declared the winner of the presidential election, his future vice president, Mohammed Fahim, will be banned from entering the United States -- because of his alleged links to the drug trade.

A difficult question
Just how badly the relationship between the Afghan and American governments has broken down was shown the day after the election at a luncheon given in the presidential palace for Obama's special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, an experienced diplomat with a reputation for bluntness. He and Karzai, the proud Pashtun, are like fire and water. Karzai doesn't like Holbrooke's arrogance, and for his part Holbrooke is irritated by Karzai's recalcitrance.

Karzai was in a good mood when he received his guest in a paneled room on the ground floor of the palace. "May I ask you a difficult question?" Holbrooke asked. He felt that a runoff election between Karzai and Abdullah could increase the democratic credibility of the resultant government and reduce criticism in the West of the military operation in Afghanistan.

Karzai sensed a trap. He thought Holbrooke was looking for a last chance to force him out of office and help the preferred rival candidate, Abdullah, to take over the presidency. His tone became sharp as he said this constituted an interference in Afghan affairs, adding that it was the role of the independent election commission -- not the Americans -- to decide on the need for a runoff election.

There are two versions as to how the luncheon continued from that point on. According to one version, they sat there silently and ate dessert. According to the other version, Karzai immediate stood up and asked his guest to leave -- whereby things got very heated.

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

By Susanne Koelbl

MORE FROM Susanne Koelbl

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Drugs Iraq War Taliban Terrorism