In the Arena

Today in Afghanistan

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Lots of news and “news” bubbling about. The “news” is that there is great mineral wealth in Afghanistan–an estimated $1 trillion, according to the New York Times. This has been known for some time, but has been unexploited as a potential source of national stability and prosperity for reasons that the Times piece doesn’t fully explain. Could it have something to do with the utter incompetence of the Afghan government–or the lack of interest in the Afghan situation by the U.S. government during the Iraq war years? Certainly, it’s going to be hard to exploit that wealth so long as there’s a war going on. (Iraq’s oil production plummeted during the hostilities there. Finally, now, there are contracts being offered to exploit the enormous reserves there.)

Meanwhile, the Washington Post has a piece about the efforts to reintegrate lower level Taliban fighters into Afghan society, which includes this fascinating tidbit about the new detention facility at Bagram Air Base:

More than any previous detention camp, the facility doubles as a trade school, offering detainees a chance to learn skills that could help them build a future and break their dependency on the Taliban. Detainees can learn to read and write, or study the Koran under the guidance of moderate mullahs, or master technical skills such as farm management, carpet-weaving and calligraphy. Detainees who take up tailoring lessons are given sewing machines to take with them after their release.

This is testimony to the incredible creativity of the U.S. military effort. But it raises a question: if these Taliban foot soldiers return to home districts dominated by the utter corruption, and the purposeful tribal favorites-playing, of the Aghan government, how long before they switch sides again.

The military is doing its job, as Bill Kristol said on Fox News yesterday. So, then, why are we losing–or as Stan McChrystal has said–not winning the war? Kristol’s answer was….Obama’s timetable. And…the State Department. The first is a red herring, the second is accurate, but incomplete. The President’s timetable, which would begin the withdrawal of NATO troops in July 2011, is very flexible. It depends on progress in the field; and there was never any sense at all that American troops would begin leaving the main battle zones in the south and east in 2011. That is why Generals Petraeus and McChrystal signed on to it. So the “we need more time” argument is baloney.

The State Department is another matter. It is true that both Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry have bad relationships with Karzai–McChrystal’s is better, but there are signs of strain there, too. But that’s not as important as the failure of USAID to provide the economic development programs necessary to make counterinsurgency work. This failure is a long, complicated story that has an awful lot to do with the defunding and deemphasis of the State Department in recent years; and also a failure of imagination over the best ways to deliver U.S. aid that Hillary Clinton is working hard to rectify.

But even if AID was firing on all cylinders, there would be an insurmountable problem unmentioned by Kristol: you can’t do counterinsurgency, or much of anything, with this sort of partner. The problem here is the lack of an Afghan governmental presence in the Pashtun areas (and, more often than not, the presence of an Afghan government presence that is devastatingly dreadful). This failure has become so obvious in the last few months that a change in U.S. strategy may be required. I’ll have more about all this in my print column this week.