The current offensive in Helmand province is providing evidence that President Barack Obama's plan to begin pulling out of Afghanistan by summer 2011 will be a tough schedule to meet.
United States and NATO forces have encountered stiff resistance at times, but the belief is that many Taliban fighters simply melted away before the fight began. This is a pattern familiar to all who have tried to maintain order in Afghanistan. Now, Obama is insisting his administration is not simply chasing away insurgents who will return when the forces leave. He says that accompanying coalition forces is a "government in a box" that will be up and running within days after the area is secure.
That is the best way forward — to turn hearts and minds, to convince the population that they don't want the Taliban around, that their best interests are served by the central government, the U.S. and allies. The point of the mission, after all, is to make Afghanistan hostile toward al-Qaida, and that requires a population that buys into a central government.
But success assumes locals are willing to accept the central government. For that to happen, the government has to work — it has to provide services and can't be overly corrupt.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, just left Afghanistan after a fact-finding mission. She believes the plan can work, but she noted: "It isn't as if we're going to be able to wave a magic wand and everything will work. … This is still a very challenging environment."
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