Afghans, Pakistanis voice doubts about U.S. strategy

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 2, 2009 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans and Pakistanis Wednesday greeted President Barack Obama's plan to send 30,000-35,000 additional troops to Afghanistan with limited enthusiasm, skepticism that the U.S. has enough staying power to defeat the Taliban-led insurgency and even suspicion that the rapid surge will be followed by a speedy exit.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, ostensibly the main beneficiary of Obama's plan, promised Wednesday that he'd "spare no effort" to help Obama repel the insurgents, but it's unclear whether he'll mount an equally strenuous campaign to root out corruption, as Obama demanded in his Tuesday evening speech at West Point.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs made that demand more explicit Wednesday, saying that Karzai and his government must "change their behavior."

"If President Karzai is unable or unwilling to make changes in corruption or governance," Gibbs said, "we will identify people at a subcabinet level, at a district level that can implement the types of services and basic governance without corruption that Afghans need."

Obama warned Pakistan, which provides sanctuary to Taliban and other insurgents who are attempting to overthrow Karzai's government, that: "We cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known."

In both Pakistan and Afghanistan, however, experts said that Obama's warnings were undercut by the president's talk of an 18-month timeline for the surge of additional troops, which they said could encourage the Taliban to wait out American forces and Karzai to cling to his corrupt warlord allies.

"This is the question," said Ali Farhad, a campaign aide to Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's leading political opponent. "Can they take all the responsibility in two or three years? That's the question mark."

"The timetable is very short," said Mohammad Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand province, one of the Afghan districts that's expected to see an influx of American soldiers. "But if they are serious and this isn't for show, then they can succeed."

Administration officials are trying to reassure hesitant allies that the president wants success, not just an exit from Afghanistan.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told skeptical congressional leaders that it might be two years before the military can begin scaling back in Afghanistan.

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, told reporters in Kabul that the president's vow to begin bringing American forces home in 18 months "is not an absolute."

"The 18-month timeline . . . as it will play out is not an absolute," McChrystal said. "It's not an 18-months, everybody leaves."

While some Afghan and Pakistani politicians worry that the 18-month schedule is too short, McChrystal said Afghanistan forces would fill the void.

"To a degree, the insurgents cannot afford to leave the battlefield while the government of Afghanistan expands its capacity, expands its legitimacy, expands its control," he said.

Pakistani analysts expressed surprise that Obama had signaled plans for a withdrawal before the surge even begins. They said the U.S. strategy asks Pakistan to risk endangering itself by attacking the Taliban groups that are the likely victors following a U.S. departure from Afghanistan.

"We don't have the capacity to do it, go after these (insurgent) 'safe havens'," said Simbal Khan, an analyst at Institute of Strategic Studies, a government-funded policy organization in Islamabad. "We can't do it without seriously destabilizing Pakistan in the process."

The Pakistani foreign ministry said the government wants "to ensure there was no adverse fallout on Pakistan," a reference to fears that the new U.S. forces would chase insurgents in Afghanistan into Pakistan.

Analysts said that heeding Obama's demands would require opening a major conflict in Pakistan's North Waziristan region, which is thought to be the base of operations of the Haqqani network, perhaps the most dangerous insurgent group operating in Afghanistan. Another likely target would be Quetta, where Mullah Mohammed Omar and other Taliban leaders are thought to be based.

Pakistani officials said the country's armed forces are already stretched thin dealing with the domestic insurgency. In the latest assault Wednesday, suicide bombers hit the entrance to the country's naval headquarters in the capital of Islamabad, killing two guards.

In Iraq, meanwhile, where political wrangling has delayed parliamentary elections, some politicians expressed unhappiness that the Afghan surge would come at the expense of U.S. troop strength in Iraq.

"The U.S. has long decided to abandon Iraq and concentrate its attention on Afghanistan," said Salig Mutlag, a Sunni Muslim lawmaker. "Now, all it wants is to wash its hands of all that the occupation has caused in Iraq and go on to glory and projected successes elsewhere."

Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish parliament member, said, "I think they (the Americans) can only concentrate on one war, not two."

"Obama himself has never believed in the war in Iraq," he said.

Vice President Joe Biden called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki before Obama's speech to assure him that the enlarged U.S. commitment to Afghanistan wouldn't come at Iraq's expense, the White House said.

There are still 115,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, but Obama hopes to remove all combat forces by next summer. Under a U.S.-Iraqi agreement, all U.S. troops must be out of the country by the end of 2011.

U.S. officials now say that if Iraq reverts to sectarian conflict, the U.S. is less likely to be helpful in future.

"It is true, Iraqis must take their affairs into their own hands and learn to resolve their own issues," said Mutlag, who heads the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, a Sunni majority party.

"We had hoped that their withdrawal would be at least responsible and ethical in that they would not leave behind them a security vacuum that may be exploited by the enemies of Iraq," he said. "But that is occupation."

(Nissenbaum reported from Kabul. Shah, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Islamabad. Strobel reported from Baghdad. McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this article from Baghdad. Steven Thomma contributed from Washington.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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