Allies Struggle in Afghanistan

Studies by several groups reflect urgent concern, suggesting a possible revival of the Taliban.

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Afghan soldiers at their graduation ceremony at a military base in Kabul.

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"Make no mistake," a new report begins, "NATO is not winning in Afghanistan." That disturbing warning from the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, is echoed by two other reports that were also released this week. Afghanistan is at a "crossroads," says the Afghanistan Study Group, led by the Center for the Study of the Presidency, which also cosponsored the original Iraq Study Group. And a paper published by the National Defense University concludes that without quick action, "the prognosis for Afghanistan is grim."

The reports identify many of the same concerns, which are both urgent and alarmingly broad. Not only is the Taliban enjoying a resurgence, but NATO has been unable to boost its troop levels (except for a temporary additional U.S. troop deployment that is pending), and the number of Afghan security forces remains insufficient.

"The prospect of again losing significant parts of Afghanistan to the forces of Islamic extremists has moved from the improbable to the possible," concludes the Afghanistan Study Group.

On the reconstruction side, the picture is one in which efforts have been largely sabotaged by corruption and mismanagement. More broadly, the international aid effort is hobbled by a lack of leadership, coordination, and resources.

"To add insult to injury, of every dollar of aid spent in Afghanistan, less than 10 percent goes directly to Afghans, further compounding reform and reconstruction problems," according to the Atlantic Council report. The fundamental threat, the report adds, is that urgent policy changes "are required now to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failing or failed state."

Clearly, the various think tanks, along with a few figures on Capitol Hill, are trying to sound an urgent alarm.

"The bottom line is that, on the current course, we're actually losing ground in Afghanistan," says Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. "The fatal consequence, all too familiar to those of us who lived through Vietnam, is that you can win every battle but fail to win the war. Absent a new focus and a transformed strategy, many of us fear that may be exactly what is happening again in Afghanistan."

When it comes to solutions, however, the reports end up being almost equally discouraging. Along with the usual calls to boost troop deployments and aid funding and to create policy "czars" to coordinate reconstruction efforts, the Atlantic Council and the Afghanistan Study Group both say one of the most urgent needs is a high-level United Nations representative. The idea, says the council, is that such a figure could "use his stature, gravitas, an authority to cajole, convince, and even coerce better coordination and integration of the international effort" with that of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government.

The problem is that after months of wrangling, diplomats finally thought they had such a U.N. superenvoy in place—former British politician Paddy Ashdown, who performed the same role in the Balkans. But at the last minute, Ashdown was in effect vetoed by none other than Karzai himself. While Karzai's aims are not completely clear, the Afghan leader claimed that he was objecting to the enhanced authority that Ashdown was expected to wield—the exact kind of authority that a growing number of think tanks and western diplomats say is needed to cut through the turf battles that have frequently paralyzed reconstruction.

"I was profoundly disappointed that Lord Ashdown was not able to be seated," says James Jones, a retired U.S. general and former supreme NATO commander who cochaired the Afghanistan Study Group, adding that he hopes a replacement will be named soon. "This is the only way I think we will be able to get the international community together."

The two reports also share a call for a regional approach, in part to address the security threats pouring across the border from the troubled tribal regions of Pakistan. But they also advocate including Iran in any regional dialogue—something the Bush administration remains vehemently opposed to. Indeed, U.S. officials were quick to criticize U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad this week for something as innocuous as an apparently unauthorized appearance with Iran's foreign minister on a panel in Davos, Switzerland.