Losing Control?

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SWEEPING THROUGH: U.S. soldiers raid the village of Naray, looking for weapons and foes

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General Myers, in his assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, gives Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants credit for responding well to U.S. tactics, for instance, by improving their ability to communicate and move money undetected. "They've adapted their tactics," he says, "and we've got to adapt ours." In particular, Myers argues, "intelligence flow has to be a lot more exquisite than it's been." He says that in the early months of the war, the U.S. kept the enemy off balance with "bold" actions that carried "a large element of risk." Now, he says, "we've got to get back to the point where we can ... act ... faster than they can."

Of course, pursuing enemy elements more aggressively carries the risk of further alienating innocent Afghans who invariably get hassled during security sweeps. "No one ever forgets that American soldiers came into their house and trawled through their women's clothing. Nor do they forgive," says Mullah Mohammed Khaksar, who despite having served as the Taliban deputy interior minister, is a relative moderate. "Doesn't the U.S. realize that with every one of these operations, their enemy is not decreasing but increasing with fresh, embittered new recruits?"

Ideally, the U.S. would like to see Afghanistan pacified by the Afghan national army. But building that force is proving a slow, arduous project. Because regional warlords are loath to contribute soldiers and weapons to a military force that could be used against them later, the national army so far consists of only about 1,200 raw, poorly armed recruits. Says a State Department official, with understatement: "They are not yet ready to take the field." Given the vacuum of authority, Washington seems to be coming around to the idea that Afghanistan is a long-term project for the U.S. "We're going to have to be there for the long haul," says David Johnson, the Bush Administration's coordinator for U.S. policy on Afghanistan.

General Myers also suggests there is growing consensus in Washington that Afghanistan's needs require a greater commitment from the U.S. In the strip of Afghanistan stretching from Kabul eastward to the Pakistan border, where al-Qaeda and the Taliban are still potent, the principal mission of the U.S. must for now remain military, Myers says. But in the remaining three-quarters of the country, it might be time to "flip our priorities," he says, and make reconstruction paramount. "That's what we're debating right now inside government." Myers says rebuilding Afghanistan would not be "a U.S.-only effort" and would require "a lot of help from the international community." But given that the war was driven by Washington, the initiative for a global effort to reconstruct Afghanistan will likely have to come from there too.

Repairing Afghanistan's infrastructure and economy might have the secondary benefit of improving security by reducing the ranks of malcontents and extremists. Mullah Khaksar says he has just returned from Kandahar, where young men fill the teahouses talking of their hatred for America. "I asked, 'Why are you here?' They answered that there was no work and no jobs; what else did they have to do?" He adds, "It's the only time they talk politics, when they are without work. Every unemployed man is the President of Afghanistan." Or a possible recruit for the enemy.

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