In the capitals of the U.S. and Afghanistan alike, the push is on to wind down a fight that Friday will mark its 10th anniversary.
The war in Afghanistan began as the good war. Today, it is the good-enough war.
In Kabul and Washington, the push is on to wind down a fight that Friday will mark its 10th anniversary.
U.S. officials, who are facing a future of fewer troops and less money for reconstruction, are narrowing their goals for the country. The constrained ambitions come amid pressure from the Obama administration to scale back the U.S. commitment at a time of flagging public support.
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In southern Afghanistan, U.S. commanders are focused on holding territory taken from the Taliban during the past two fighting seasons. In the capital, Kabul, U.S. officials are working to restart peace and reconciliation talks that appear to be going nowhere. And in the east, where violence is up slightly over last year and plans for U.S. reinforcements were scuttled this spring, military commanders are pressing new offensives before troop levels begin to fall. That is where U.S. commanders face their most daunting challenge.
“Our sense of urgency is driven by time and a recognition that we will never have more forces on the ground than we do right now,” said Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn, the U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan.
U.S. troop levels, which are at their peak of about 98,000, will shrink by about 30,000 by summer. The coming cuts have led senior military officials to press forward with large-scale operations designed to take on key insurgent strongholds before troop levels decline, U.S. military officials said.
Many of those assaults have focused on shoring up security along the southern approaches to Kabul, where the Haqqani network has sought to expand its presence. The insurgent group has been responsible for many high-profile attacks in Kabul.
The military had plans this year to shift some combat forces from the south to the east to help in the battle against Haqqani strongholds, but those plans were shelved, because commanders were worried that if they thinned out forces in the south too quickly, they would give up hard-won gains there.
“You’ve ended up with about two-thirds of the planned-for uses of the surge,” said a U.S. official in Afghanistan, one of several who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The inability to increase the size of the U.S. force in the east, now at about 30,000 troops, has compelled commanders to make tough choices. Commanders have identified 45 of 160 districts as “key terrain districts” where security and governance must take hold. To further focus limited resources, they have designated 21 of the 45 “priority” districts.
“If we stabilize the 45 key terrain districts, that directly affects 80 percent of the 7.5 million people in regional command east,” Allyn said.
U.S. officials focusing on reconstruction are also scaling back goals and expectations. In Konar province, along the Pakistan border, money that went toward paying Afghan elders $120 monthly stipends to sit on district councils, known as shuras, was eliminated. About half the elders are expected to stay with the quasiofficial bodies, which play key roles in areas such as local dispute resolution.
“It remains to be seen if they will continue to be effective,” said a U.S. official in eastern Afghanistan who follows the program. “We have dramatically reduced expectations of what we can accomplish here.”
Signs of progress
Despite the problems, U.S. commanders point to signs of progress. There are new indications the Taliban are having a harder time recruiting fighters locally. Some commanders point to the influx of foreign fighters as a sign that Afghans are ready to seek peace. “What we can definitively state is that the population is tired of the fighting,” Allyn said.
Others worry that the supply of young fighters from Pakistan could be inexhaustible. “They are like bees,” one U.S. official said. “How many do you have to kill to get them all?”
In recent months, U.S. efforts to confront Afghan corruption have stumbled or been scaled back. A turning point came in the spring, when Afghan investigators, working with Western advisers, arrested an aide to President Hamid Karzai on accusations of bribery.
Karzai intervened to spring the aide from prison on the day of the arrest, and the political uproar led to a deep discord in U.S.-Afghan relations. Karzai later compared the American advisers’ actions to detentions carried out during the Soviet occupation.
Since then, prosecutions of corrupt officials have been almost nonexistent. “How many major cases brought to the attorney general have been resolved? It is a fairly depressing number,” the senior military official said.
Kabul’s unwillingness to weed out incompetent leaders also has disappointed U.S. officials. In one key eastern province, the Americans have been pressing for almost a year to replace the governor, U.S. officials said.
“Karzai has not supported state institution building and instead tried to balance power brokers, creating his own power base,” one former U.S. official said.
In areas where there are strong provincial and district governors, such as Helmand province, U.S. officials said the Taliban losses have been most sweeping and the gains seem most certain to hold.
Another bright spot has been an effort, led by U.S. Special Forces troops, to work with elders to build village police forces. About 7,500 Afghans participate in the program, and Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has said he hopes to double the size of the program to 15,000.