Photos: Courtesy, DoD

WASHINGTON (IPS/GIN) – Nearly a week after the abrupt demise of Washington’s top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. strategy for reversing the flood of bad news that has been recently pouring out of that strife-torn country remains as unclear as ever.

Led by Sen. John McCain and many of the same neo-conservatives who championed the war in Iraq, hawks called on President Barack Obama to abandon his July 2011 timetable for beginning to withdraw U.S. combat troops in favor of an open-ended military commitment to achieve “victory” over the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

At the same time, war skeptics argue that the forced resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal–reportedly over the indiscreet and even contemptuous remarks he and his entourage expressed to a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine about his civilian superiors–offers the administration a golden opportunity to move up the timetable, reduce the U.S. military presence, and get behind a negotiated settlement with the Taliban sooner rather than later.


Gen. David Petraeus, the current chief of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), replaced the indiscreet and impolitic McChrystal as the head of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.

Gen. Petraeus, who oversaw Iraq operations in 2007 and 2008, is credited with turning around a disastrous situation and has established his reputation as a master of counterinsurgency (COIN).

Even with Gen. Petraeus’s appointment–hailed almost universally as a political masterstroke by Mr. Obama–confidence in current strategy, however it is understood, is not high, both in Congress and among the general public.

In a survey of congressional insiders published June 25 after Gen. Petraeus’ appointment, the National Journal found that only 13 percent of Democrats and three percent of Republicans said they were “very confident” of the administration’s conduct of the war. Fifty-one percent of Democrats and 26 percent of Republicans said they were “somewhat confident,” while 36 percent of Democrats and a whopping 71 percent of Republicans said they were either “not very confident” or “not confident at all.”

Even more remarkable has been the shift in public opinion which had already become markedly less supportive of the war even before Gen. McChrystal’s ouster.

While significantly more respondents in several polls have supported the general’s dismissal by Mr. Obama than opposed it, confidence that the war is being won appears to have dropped precipitously.

According to a survey conducted by Newsweek, only 24 percent of respondents–the lowest percentage in the nearly nine years U.S. troops have been deployed to Afghanistan–believe the U.S. is “winning” there, while a 46 percent plurality believes Washington is “losing.” Another 19 percent believe the war is stalemated.

Weeks before, an ABC/Washington Post poll found that 42 percent of respondents believed the U.S. was “winning;” 39 percent that it was “losing;” and 12 percent that it was neither winning nor losing.

As a student of the Vietnam War and a COIN specialist, Gen. Petraeus himself knows how difficult it is to fight a long war–and Afghanistan just surpassed Vietnam as the longest U.S. war in history–in the face of waning public confidence back home. He also knows that public confidence can only be gained by showing tangible progress on the ground.

Progress, however, may be very difficult to show, at least over the critical next five months, at the end of which the administration is committed to conducting a comprehensive review of its strategy.

Indeed, that was the bleak assessment conveyed–by none other than Gen. McChrystal himself–to defense ministers from NATO and other members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) earlier this month, according to a June 27 report in Britain’s Independent newspaper.

The article suggested that Gen. McChrystal’s resignation may have resulted more from his pessimism than from his indiscretion with reporters. It reported that the general complained that the Afghan army and police were “critically short on trainers;” that an “ineffective or discredited” central government enjoyed “full authority” in only five of 122 districts; and that there was a “low level of confidence that positive trends will be sustained over the next six-month period.” He also described the Taliban and associated groups as a “resilient and growing insurgency.”

Since that assessment, of course, the news out of Afghanistan has only gotten worse.

Not only have U.S. and NATO casualties risen sharply with the Taliban’s spring-summer offensive, but growing indications from Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he wants to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban has raised the specter of renewed civil war between the Pashtuns on the one hand and the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities that led the fight against the Taliban from the mid-1990s to Taliban’s ouster in 2001 on the other.

Meanwhile, an incessant stream of reports of government corruption is adding to the growing conviction that Washington’s efforts to extend Kabul’s authority–a key component of the strategy Mr. Obama adopted with Gen. Petraeus’ advice and consent as Centcom commander only nine months ago–could well prove counterproductive.

“Karzai Officials Seen Impeding Bribery Probes,” for example, was the June 28 headline featured on the Washington Post front page. At the same time, the Wall Street Journal reported that more than $3 billion in cash–some of which is believed to have been U.S. aid–had been flown out of Kabul airport in the past three years.

Nonetheless, a variety of hawks–notably Sen. McCain; some prominent neo-conservatives, such as the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations; and COIN enthusiasts, such as Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, and John Nagl, the head of the influential Center for a New American Security–insist that the situation is not as bad as depicted in the news and that the war remains salvageable, especially under Gen. Petraeus.

The right-wing hawks also claim that the strategy has made important inroads but insist that Mr. Obama should abandon his mid-2011 deadline for beginning to withdraw U.S. troops.

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