Experts divided on Obama's new Afghanistan strategy 2009-07-16 07:40:37   Print

    by Matthew Rusling

    WASHINGTON, July 15 (Xinhua) -- Nearly two weeks into a major U.S. offensive, experts here remain divided over whether U.S. President Barack Obama's new Afghanistan strategy will prove effective.

    Operation Khanjar ("Strike of the Sword") is the first significant test of Obama's new counter insurgency strategy, experts said. Some say Afghans are fed up with the Taliban and will support U.S. efforts to drive them out. Others, however, say Afghans have lost patience with the United States and that a number of other hurdles may prove too steep.

    The immediate goal is to beef up security in the country's most volatile areas and ensure safety during the August presidential elections.

    In the long term, the U.S. military aims to create stability that allows development, regain locals' trust and transfer security duties to Afghan forces.

    As part of the plan, U.S. troops will fan out across the country and work in small units -- in villages instead of isolated bases -- in an effort to develop infrastructure in a nation bereft of the most basic services. Critics, however, said winning over locals may prove difficult.

    "I think the Afghan people have lost their patience," said Thomas Johnson, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, a university that educates military officers. "They had high expectations but we haven't delivered on our promises."

    Added to this disappointment are significant holes in the strategy's implementation, he said.

    The average platoon of Marines is not trained to take on development projects or build infrastructure, said Johnson, who just returned from a weeks-long stint in the embattled country.

    While armed forces have some advantages over development organizations -- troops can deliver aid in zones too deadly for civilians -- their primary role is combat.

    "Marines are known for breaking things, not building things," he said. "Just sending a platoon of Marines into a village isn't the best way to win over population," he said.

    Other experts, however, expressed optimism. "I think (the situation) can be turned around," said Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research institute.

    One positive development is a new U.S. presidential administration that is committed to success and willing to bring the resources to accomplish the mission, he said.

    U.S. forces are slated to reach 68,000 by year-end, more than double the 32,000 troops on the ground at the end of last year.

    "The administration has also kept in place a very capable defense secretary in Robert Gates," he added. Afghans are also fed up with the Taliban, he said.

    "Taliban rule is not popular and (Afghans) want an alternative, "he said. But despite such sentiments, Afghans are keenly aware of shifts in power, he said.

    While they would like to side with those who can provide a better life -- what U.S. forces say they will do -- they will support the Taliban if that organization is able to coerce people, he said.

    To avoid this, it is crucial to put U.S. forces in places under Taliban control, secure those areas and, especially, hold them, experts said.

    "If people aren't sure if coalition forces will stay there, they will cooperate with the Taliban," said Lisa Curtis, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

    Still, she believes the U.S. military can meet its goals. "We might be ready to make gains in the south," said Curtis, who recently returned from Afghanistan, pointing to the recent fighting in Helmand province.

    Other experts cite the new emphasis on minimizing civilian casualties as a positive development. General Stanley McCrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, recently instituted new airstrike guidelines that instruct U.S. forces to balance the need for air support with avoiding civilian casualties and property damage.

    In spite of these efforts, Reva Bhalla, director of analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence company, said gaining locals' support is a decades-long project and that time may be running out.

    Indeed, key U.S. lawmakers have signaled that they are losing patience with the conflict. Congress wants to see results as early as next year and some lawmakers want to cut funding. And with mid-term elections coming next year, U.S. casualties could become an issue if they rise significantly.

    U.S. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said here recently that the time frame for success with the new strategy is relatively short.

    "I believe we have to start to turn the tide with respect to the Taliban in the next 12 to 18 months," he said, noting that he was confident that U.S. forces would meet that goal. "The forces that we have, the strategy that we have and the approach that we have will allow us to do that."

    Many, however, caution against a premature withdrawal. Bhalla said a deadline for U.S. troops to pull out would be "music to the Taliban's ears." If the Taliban detects that the United States' patience is wearing thin, they will view it as a symbolic victory, she said.

    If the strategy is given time to work, however, certain changes must be made, experts said.

    Johnson said U.S. forces must own up to any mistakes they might make. In a country that has been fighting guerilla wars since Alexander the Great, Afghans realize that innocents will be killed, he said.

    Their numbers are not important, he said. But admitting fault is crucial when U.S. mistakes result in Afghan deaths. "We've lost a lot of friends because we haven't dealt with this well in the past," he said.

    Such honesty will convince locals that U.S. forces are there to help, Johnson said. But in a country with a long history of foreign occupation -- the Soviets and British, for example - that is a tall order.

    "Afghans have never put up with foreign occupiers," he said. "As soon as a foreign nation is viewed as an occupier it's the beginning of the end." That is why winning over the population is critical, he said.

    Gaining local trust, however, requires getting the message out in a rural nation where many have no access to television or radios.

    Bhalla said, "The main form of communication there is word of mouth. People sit outside and they gossip. The ability (of U.S. forces) to disseminate information to win hearts and minds is limited."

Editor: Wang Guanqun
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