"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 reports generally agree on what needs to be done:
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.
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.
A report by Oxfam similarly decries the slow-pace of the rebuilding effort in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan's more pressing concerns are rapidly becoming security against the resurgent Taliban. It would be easy to blame this on the Bush administration for the giant diversion that is Iraq, but the problem is that few of the NATO allies have made the necessary military commitments to Afghanistan. Officials at State vow to get their allies to "step up" and has written a harshly worded letter to Germany and other NATO members, pressing them to commit combat troops to the restless south. Germany seems willing to increase aid, but not increase their military commitment. But that's not going to be enough, not as Canada threatens to leave for want of help in Kandahar and the British are proposing sending inadequately trained troops as a result of pressing troops shortages. And though supporters of the mission in Iraq are calling for more U.S. troops, they're simply nowhere to be found. Whether the mission in Iraq is feasible or not, there's simply no denying that our troops will be their in considerable numbers for some time to come, and possibly long enough to lose Afghanistan. Help is desperately needed in Afghanistan, but it would appear so far that none is on the way.