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Last week Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with his fellow NATO defense ministers to confirm what had been made obvious by the dismissal of Gen. David McKiernan as the top commander in Afghanistan: The war is once again mostly an American show.
There are three immediate implications of this Americanization of the Afghan war. The first is that it carries the fight into the heart of enemy resistance in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. The city of Kandahar is commonly called the “capital of Pashtunistan,” referring to the Pashtuns who live astride the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Kandahar also was the de facto capital of the Taliban government and home to Mullah Omar, the charismatic one-eyed cleric who led the Taliban movement. Mullah Omar now leads the shura–the political-military-religious organization–in Quetta, just over the border in Pakistan, and retains ties to Pakistani intelligence services and Osama bin Laden. One of the first steps in this summer’s campaign will be to more thoroughly interdict shura operations in Kandahar and Helmand.
The second implication will be to accelerate the bifurcation of the International Security Assistance Force. A NATO operation, ISAF has been running the war in Afghanistan since 2006, and has long been divided into two parts. In the north there is a coalition of peacekeepers organized around German forces. Then there is the coalition of the war-fighting forces; U.S. troops in the east, and British, Canadians, Danish and Dutch forces in the south. These forces have been conducting combat “clearing” operations and, since 2008, counterinsurgency “holding” and “building” operations.
The British, working with the Danish in Helmand, and the Canadians in Kandahar have never had sufficient troops to push into the villages and valleys that have been refuge for the Taliban. With the arrival of significant American reinforcements, which will double the number of NATO forces in the south, there is an increased opportunity to protect the majority of Afghan people and improve the quality of Afghan governance.
The third effect will be to give greater coherence to the ineffective counternarcotics effort in Afghanistan. Helmand is the home to a large part of the Afghan opium trade, where poppies line the Helmand River and extend northward toward Lake Kajaki. During the Bush administration, the counternarcotics program focused on eradication. President George W. Bush once proudly said that he was a “spray man.” The Obama administration won’t repeat that mistake, but seems devoted to crop, or livelihood substitution projects that may distort counterinsurgency priorities. The opium problem is serious, but is a symptom of the disease in Afghanistan. The underlying problem is the corruption of the Afghan government and lawlessness in the south.
There are also likely to be two longer-term results of Americanization. Securing the south of Afghanistan is the most immediately necessary element in building a larger and more durable success of the sort that came out of the Iraq surge. A better hold on the south would hurt the Taliban badly. They will fight hard and increase Afghan, American and allied casualties throughout the summer. If pressed, they may retreat over the border into Pakistan and into western Afghanistan around Herat. This western sector is the responsibility of Italian and Spanish forces, who have small numbers of troops and who are not part of the war-fighting coalition. Any victory in the south in 2009 will be incomplete and temporary unless followed with a similar and additional effort in the west in 2010.
Which would raise a final question: What will be the role of America’s NATO allies in Afghanistan? It is one thing to reinforce the British, Danes, Canadians and Dutch, who have been fighting for several years. Finding a “soft landing” for the trans-Atlantic alliance while preserving the coalition of the willing in Afghanistan will be tricky. The temptation for many in Europe will be to let America do it; the Dutch have had enough, and Canada’s combat mandate expires in 2011 and may not be renewed.
The Americanization of the Afghan war is a key to victory, but victory in Afghanistan is a single campaign in the long war. To achieve a larger success, the United States needs to preserve the coalition of the willing–willing to fight a war of choice because they know how important it is for America to win.
Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow at AEI.
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