Monday, March 30, 2009

Don't leave everything to America

Monday - Obama & Afghanistan


Thousands have been marching in London over the weekend for "jobs, justice and climate." The protests are aimed at the Group of 20 Summit which takes place April 2, bringing together countries that control 85 percent of the world's economy.

Equally fateful are two other gatherings on the continent this week. Tomorrow, a one-day UN-sponsored conference at The Hague grapples with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and delegates from more than 80 countries - Iran included - will attend.

Then, on April 3-4, President Barack Obama travels from the G-20 to NATO meetings in France and Germany, where he will gently cajole the alliance into doing more in Afghanistan.

It's unlikely the Iranians will start behaving responsibly as an outcome of The Hague conference. They help arm and train the Taliban - not because the Shi'ite mullahs want to see Afghanistan solidify as a bastion of Sunni fanaticism, but because, as Robert D. Kaplan argues in the current Atlantic magazine, "they want to keep Afghanistan weak, and to bleed the Americans as much as they can."

Plainly, the West must not allow Iran to leverage its bad behavior in Afghanistan in order to gain concessions for even more troubling behavior on the nuclear weapons issue. But Iran's attendance is a sideshow.

The more urgent issue is whether NATO is prepared to devote the resources necessary to make Afghanistan inhospitable as a base for international terrorism, or whether it will continue to leave most of the fighting burden to an over-stretched Washington.

ON FRIDAY, the president unveiled a new, integrated strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan intended to address both counter-insurgency and societal development. "The situation is increasingly perilous," Obama told the American people. "It has been more than seven years since the Taliban was removed from power, yet war rages on, and insurgents control parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan."

He reminded Americans that "al-Qaida and its allies - the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks - are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al-Qaida is actively planning attacks on the US homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan." America's goal is "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan..."

The administration is sending 17,000 more troops to the Afghan theater, starting with 4,000 trainers. Thousands more US service personnel may follow. In addition, Congress is being asked to appropriate $1.5 billion per year for five years in development aid to Afghanistan-Pakistan.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan, a fractious polity if ever there was one, is integral to solving the Afghanistan conundrum. Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency helped establish the Taliban, and continues to abet them.

Pakistan's own Taliban are divided into three factions. Now, Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Afghan Taliban chief who first gave Osama bin Laden refuge prior to 9/11, has urged his ethnic Pashtun compatriots across the border to stop fighting each other, ease up on their battle against the nominally pro-Western central government in Islamabad, and focus instead on defeating America in Afghanistan.

For their part, the Americans want to drive a wedge, using jobs and other incentives, between the more implacable, fanatic Taliban and those whose goals are comparatively limited and whose grievances are addressable.

Most Taliban supporters, counter-insurgency experts surmise, are not Omar's natural allies. Politics aside, all factions, including those aligned with the pro-Western president, Hamid Karzai, live off the lucrative heroin and opium trade. Competing with the seductive allure of religious fanaticism, violence and drugs won't be easy.

THOUSANDS of soldiers from NATO and allied countries are now stationed in Afghanistan. But only a tiny fraction of them are in fighting units. Most operate under national guidelines which make it impossible for them to take the offensive (though, tragically, many have lost their lives to roadside bombs and ambushes). They are deployed mostly in training and support roles; some almost never leave their bases. Germany, for instance, has heavily invested in the - so far fruitless - training of Afghanistan's ineffectual police.

The time has come for the multinational, anti-Islamist alliance to carry a full share of the combat burden necessary to defeat - finally - Mullah Omar and Bin Laden. America shouldn't have to bear the brunt.

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