Few Afghanistan policy watchers anticipated any significant revelations in the Obama administration’s review of the war in Afghanistan. Administration officials repeatedly downplayed the review and directed National Security staff not to offer policy alternatives. As expected, the overview released to the public reiterates the president’s justifications for the war from his 2009 West Point speech and makes the same weak claims of progress that administration officials have been making in the media in the run-up to the review. Tom Andrews of Win Without War lays out a good list of problems with the Afghanistan strategy that were conspicuously absent from the review.
While the Pentagon and White House are painting a picture of a difficult but surmountable challenge in Afghanistan, the administration’s own intelligence officials see a much starker situation.
Two new assessments by the U.S. intelligence community present a gloomy picture of the Afghanistan war, contradicting a more upbeat view expressed by military officials as the White House prepares to release a progress report on the 9-year-old conflict.
The classified intelligence reports contend that large swaths of Afghanistan are still at risk of falling to the Taliban, according to officials who were briefed on the National Intelligence Estimates on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which represent the collective view of more than a dozen intelligence agencies.
The reports, the subject of a recent closed hearing by the Senate Intelligence Committee, also say Pakistan's government remains unwilling to stop its covert support for members of the Afghan Taliban who mount attacks against U.S. troops from the tribal areas of the neighboring nation. The officials declined to be named because they were discussing classified data.
Meanwhile, the Red Cross reports that conditions in Afghanistan are the worst they have been in 30 years:
Earlier this month the ICRC in Geneva warned the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan was likely to deteriorate further in 2011.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were overthrown more than nine years ago, with record casualties on all sides of the conflict. Almost 700 foreign troops have died in 2010 alone, by far the bloodiest year of the war.
But ordinary Afghans have borne the brunt of the fighting. According to U.N. figures, 1,271 civilians were killed in the first six months of this year, 21 percent more than in the same period in 2009. Most of those deaths were blamed on insurgents.
The ICRC has also reported a spike this year in the number of patients with war wounds admitted at the main hospital it supports in southern Kandahar.
More than 2,650 patients with weapons-related injuries were admitted to Mirwais Hospital in 2010 compared to 2,110 in 2009, the ICRC says. A further 1,000 war wounded were treated but not admitted at the hospital over the past two years.
One of the biggest questions following President Obama’s 2009 speech was the real meaning of his stated commitment to begin withdrawing troops in July of 2011. It was clearly meant to give some hope to the growing number of people who oppose the military strategy, but much of that hope was dashed by the president’s announcement that NATO forces plan to end the “combat mission” in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 (which could still mean many “non-combat troops” on the ground after 2014 as we have in Iraq). The president reiterated both of those timelines in his speech about the review today:
This sense of urgency also helped galvanize the coalition around the goals that we agreed to at the recent NATO summit in Lisbon —- that we are moving toward a new phase in Afghanistan, a transition to full Afghan lead for security that will begin early next year and will conclude in 2014, even as NATO maintains a long-term commitment to training and advising Afghan forces. Now, our review confirms, however, that for these security gains to be sustained over time, there is an urgent need for political and economic progress in Afghanistan.
It’s still unclear how the president envisions this drawdown beginning in 2011. Many people envisioned a serious end to the war beginning next summer, but dragging out a withdrawal beyond 2014 precludes any significant changes next year. The use of the term “conditions-based withdrawal” leaves the administration far more wiggle room than is comfortable, and we’ve already seen the military’s proclivity for manipulating the debate to get greater commitments of time and resources.
People around the country, from members of Congress to Afghanistan experts, are not content to see President Obama let that 2011 commitment of a responsible withdrawal quietly slip away. And the general public is increasingly fed up. A new poll shows that 60% of Americans think the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, on par with the unpopularity of the Iraq war for the first time.
The administration, however, has been rather dismissive of the public discontent. In a press conference today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to the polls with this:
"I'm well aware of the popular concern, and I understand it. But I don't think leaders -- and certainly this president will not -- make decisions that are matters of life and death and the future security of our nation based on polling…
…I think it's understandable, and I'm very respectful of the feelings of the American people, but the question I would ask is, how do you feel about a continuing American commitment that is aimed at protecting you and your family now and into the future?"
If you’re asking me, I’d say I’d feel just fine about an American commitment to protecting us, and I’d like to see this administration show me one. Instead, I’m seeing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, calls for slashing the social safety net and cutting critical domestic spending programs, and billions of dollars wasted on wars that aren’t making anyone safer, and are likely increasing animosity toward the United States worldwide. It’s clear that the American people see through this, and throughout 2011 we won’t let the administration and Congress forget that their responsibility for our safety, security and prosperity means they must take action to end this war now.