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Tue., Feb. 2, 2010

Trudy Rubin: Afghan strategy needs focus

U.S. officials attended the London Conference on Afghanistan last week to rally international support behind that country. But I feel obliged to ask an unpleasant question: Does the Obama team want its Afghan strategy to fail?

What prompts this query is President Barack Obama’s seeming inability to resolve disputes within his administration over a strategy he announced late last year following lengthy deliberations.

The latest evidence of disarray is the leak, in full, of two classified cables in which the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, castigates Afghan President Hamid Karzai and opposes sending more U.S. troops to the country.

Parts of these cables were leaked in November, causing a flap and angering Obama. The first leak was rightly described as an inside strike by administration officials who opposed the counterinsurgency approach of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

But now that Obama has decided on a strategy – and generally endorsed McChrystal’s approach – a second such leak amounts to insubordination. It gives the impression of a White House still bitterly divided over Afghan policy, with no one exerting control.

I can’t figure out what strategy the leakers want Obama to pursue in Kabul. Eikenberry’s complaints about Karzai have merit, but so what? The United States has no choice but to deal with Karzai. If we are lucky, he may improve his performance somewhat, as did Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

If Karzai remains problematic, then U.S. officials should circumvent him to the greatest extent possible and work with competent cabinet ministers and provincial officials. Our gripes about Karzai would not justify our leaving and letting the Taliban retake Kabul. An Afghan Taliban redux would strengthen militants across the border who want to obtain Pakistani nukes.

Perhaps the leakers endorse Vice President Joe Biden’s approach; he opposed a troop “surge” in Afghanistan and advocated a purely counterterrorist strategy: pursuing al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban in their havens inside Pakistan.

But it has become very clear that such a strategy is a nonstarter. The United States can’t send troops into sovereign Pakistan. Nor is the Pakistani military, busy fighting its own militants, willing to take on the Afghan Taliban based inside its borders. Any effort by the United States to greatly expand controversial Predator strikes inside Pakistan would turn the Pakistani army and public against us.

In sum, we can’t defeat the Taliban and isolate al-Qaida just by bombing Pakistan.

Perhaps the cable-leakers endorse a strategy of pursuing talks with the Afghan Taliban, in hopes that they and Karzai can reach a political solution with international help. That would enable a drawdown of U.S. troops and undercut al-Qaida leaders by reducing their base of support.

Fine. But what most Americans don’t realize is that talking to the Taliban has always been an essential part of the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan. That strategy aims at a political, not a military, solution.

The questions under debate are when to hold these talks, and with whom. The U.S. military believes it’s necessary to woo away low- and mid-level Taliban, and push some back by force, before higher-level Taliban leaders will engage in serious political talks. After all, why should Taliban leaders negotiate if they think they are winning and can wait for the Americans to leave?

McChrystal has funds, and a team of British and U.S. officers, to entice Taliban fighters to put down arms. This effort is meant to be coordinated with Karzai, who will seek support in London for a Taliban “reintegration” program.

Might it make sense to pursue negotiations with senior Taliban now? So far, the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar has rejected talks with Karzai prior to the departure of all U.S. troops from the country. But it might be possible to draw senior Taliban commanders into preliminary talks with international help.

That’s far less likely, however, if Obama can’t get his team in line. A divided administration will produce an incoherent policy. It will reduce the chance of reintegrating Taliban or persuading their senior leaders to endorse a political bargain. The 60 nations gathered in London can’t help Obama reach a decent Afghan solution if the White House isn’t certain what it wants.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is

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