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Afghanistan autumn of discontent: Gates says war strategy first, election second

In seeming contrast to key White House and NATO officials, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates says the US should decide its military strategy for Afghanistan without waiting until a new government becomes widely accepted as a legitimate one. This puts him at sixes and sevens with other officials who are resisting a decision to send more soldiers until the election is resolved.

Gates told reporters while en route to Tokyo, “We’re not just going to sit on our hands, waiting for the outcome of this election and for the emergence of a government in Kabul… It’s not going to be complicated one day and simple the next.”

Gates wouldn’t say if he thought a runoff between Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah was inevitable, but he did note the possibility Abdullah would not demand a runoff, saying, “They basically have to sort it through themselves.”

The Obama administration has been wrestling with whether or not to send tens of thousands of new troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan or use drone spy planes and covert military missions to focus more narrowly on al-Qaeda leaders believed to be in Pakistan.

In the past several days, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen have said there should be no decision on a future strategy until a legitimate Afghanistan government is assured.

Gates’ comments come as there is a growing murmur of increasingly public discontent by some in the US military that decisions are about to be made by the Obama administration for what amount to domestic political reasons, rather than in response to the military “facts on the ground” in Afghanistan. 

The Obama administration remains poised between three distinctly different alternatives for Afghanistan. The first is US Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation that up to 60,000 additional troops be sent to Afghanistan to take the fight to the Taliban. A second calls for a pull back into cities and fortified areas to protect the population and call on the Afghan army to confront the insurgents.

Finally, a third alternative relocates the focus of US operations entirely. Al Qaeda fighters have mostly moved to Pakistan’s rugged frontier region. As a result, the confrontation in Pakistan is the real game – Afghanistan is a relative sideshow. Afghanistan’s army and government must be encouraged to find some kind of common ground with the Taliban inside Afghanistan. By contrast, Pakistan is much bigger, more strategically located — and nuclear armed.  A failed or collapsed state in Pakistan would be a catastrophe that could destabilise the entirety of South Asia and so Al Qaeda irregulars should be fought with special ops teams, armed drone planes and other high tech weaponry.

By Brooks Spector

Read more: The New York Times, The Washington Post


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