Three time bombs are buried within the new and ambitious strategy for Afghanistan that President Obama unveiled Friday. Their detonation — which would cripple the international mission to stabilize the country and perhaps cripple Obama’s presidency — is not inevitable. But defusing them will take an exceptional performance by U.S. military commanders and diplomats, some skillful politicking by the president — and maybe a little of the unexpected good fortune that blessed the U.S. surge in Iraq.
By Jackson Diehl
The Washington Post
The first fuse is burning down toward Aug. 20, less than five months from now. On that day, Afghanistan is due to hold a presidential election whose outcome and perceived fairness may determine whether most Afghans continue to view U.S. and NATO forces as friendly. By then, too, the 17,000 additional Marines and Army troops authorized by Obama last month should be deployed in the two southern Afghan provinces, Helmand and Kandahar, where the Taliban is strongest, along with scores of new American civilian advisers.
This first test is twofold: Can the new U.S. forces clear the enemy from the large areas near the border with Pakistan where they now rule with near impunity — something that inevitably will mean a spike in violence — without appearing to use disproportionate force? And will Afghans be secure enough to cast ballots in an election in which they will be offered alternatives to incumbent President Hamid Karzai, with the assurance that their votes will be fairly counted?
U.S. commanders are pretty confident they can pass the military test, in part because for the first time in the seven-year war they can mass enough forces to overwhelm the Taliban without heavy reliance on air power, which causes 60 percent of civilian casualties. The election will be trickier. Karzai’s government is perceived as feckless and corrupt by much of the Afghan population, and his relations with the United States have deteriorated sharply in the past year. Yet, in part because of a lack of strong challengers, he appears likely to win reelection. If the vote seems rigged, or if Karzai wins a new mandate without offering a credible promise of improvement, Afghans may irrevocably sour both on the central government and its foreign sponsors.
“This election has to be viewed as free and fair,” said one U.S. military officer in Kabul. “And there has to be some discussion of corruption by Karzai so that in the first 100 days after the election there can be some visible action taken.”
Read also Peter Bergen of the New York Times on why the historic record for Afghanistan does not have to predict the future…