Afghanistan may be Obama’s toughest foreign challenge

Jonathan S. Landay

WASHINGTON – Ten days before President Barack Obama’s inauguration, the Afghan government added a new wrinkle to the toughest foreign policy challenge confronting the new president by demanding a share of control over the 30,000-strong, NATO-led security force in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government’s Jan. 10 plan, a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy, would give the Afghan government authority to approve an increase in International Security Assistance Force troops, which include about 19,500 Americans. It also would limit home searches or detention of Afghans to Afghan forces and require coordination of “all phases of” NATO ground and air operations “at the highest possible level.”

The deteriorating relationship between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his foreign allies, however, is only one of myriad obstacles that Obama and his just-named special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, are confronting in Afghanistan, which Obama on Thursday called “the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism.”

The Taliban are stronger than they’ve been at any time since the U.S. ousted the puritanical Islamist group in 2001. Relying on sanctuaries in neighboring areas of Pakistan held by allied Islamic militants, they dominate huge swaths of the south and east of the Texas-sized country of sweeping deserts and towering peaks.

The insurgents are no match in set-piece battles with some 32,000 U.S. troops and 30,000 soldiers from NATO and non-NATO countries. The insurgents, however, easily replace the casualties they suffer, and they’ve increased their use of suicide bombs, snipers, assassinations and other guerrilla tactics while creeping closer to Kabul, the capital.

Although the Taliban, al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorist groups remain active along the remote border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Bush administration failed to develop a coherent strategy to coordinate security operations in Afghanistan with international efforts to improve governance and provide schools, roads and other infrastructure.

U.S. commanders, however, say they don’t have enough troops to execute such a strategy, and Obama has embraced a call for another 30,000 U.S. troops.

Senior U.S. military officials, however, say that increase is probably insufficient for Afghanistan, which is twice the size of Iraq, and they say they lack answers to basic questions, such as what realistically can be achieved in the next three to five years.

“Clearly the message I’m getting is, ‘What are the near-term goals going to be?” said Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Thursday. He said that the strategy reviews his staff and Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the region, are conducting for Obama should answer that question.

Other obstacles facing Obama include the reluctance of NATO governments to buck majorities of their publics that oppose sending more troops or funds to Afghanistan.

U.S. commanders are further frustrated by what they charge is the reluctance of their European counterparts to fight or act without clearance from their civilian masters.

“They can’t do anything without getting permission,” complained a U.S. defense official involved in Afghan policy, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

The official said that Obama also should insist that ISAF relinquish control over operations in the Taliban’s southern heartland to the U.S.

He also said that he thought that Obama shouldn’t waste the international goodwill he brings into office by launching what likely would be an unsuccessful diplomatic effort to convince European allies to provide more troops, he said.

“Just send the 30,000 U.S. troops,” said the U.S. defense official, adding that even more will have to go, although that will depend on whether Iraq remains stable or renewed violence there disrupts Obama’s plan for a complete withdrawal by mid-2010.

The U.S. military already is suffering the strains of fighting both wars, and U.S. units in Afghanistan are finding that tanks, armored Humvees and other equipment adapted for the mostly urban battlefields of Iraq are ill-suited and prone to breakdowns in Afghanistan’s rubble-strewn mountains and dusty deserts.

Ordinary Afghans, meanwhile, are losing faith in the West, angered by the unrelenting violence and grinding poverty eight years into the U.S.-led intervention, while the world’s largest opium crop fuels the Taliban and feeds official corruption and enriches warlords.

Karzai has criticized NATO for military operations that have caused heavy civilian casualties. “Afghans once welcomed the international presence,” Fransesc Vendrell, the former longtime European Union representative to Kabul, told a Jan. 8 conference in Washington. “The initial welcome is turning into impatience and even downright hostility.”

U.S. and NATO officials, meanwhile, have dismissed Karzai’s call late last year for peace talks with the Taliban as an election ploy and have criticized corruption and paralysis within his administration.

“Afghans need a government that deserves their loyalty and trust,” NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer fired back at the Afghan leader in a Washington Post op-ed piece a week after he received Kabul’s proposed military accord.

– Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report.

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.