Afghanistan, the election and the end game

US Marines Lance Corporal Michael Horne gets ready to open fire in Sistani, Helmand Province May 7, 2011 Most US troops are due to leave Afghanistan by 2014

Congressman Walter Jones is that rare thing, a politician suffering remorse.

He's very public about his regrets over America's recent wars. In his office on Capitol Hill, where every wall is covered with surrounded by military memorabilia from veterans' organisations, he tells me he was duped by Bush and Blair.

A Republican, like his friend Ron Paul, he wants an end to the wars.

He's the man who pushed for the Congress restaurant to rename its French fries "freedom fries". He's rather shame-faced about this as well.

But it is the suffering of the bereaved and wounded that haunts him. He has signed 10,000 letters of condolence. He tells me he recently went to see a marine who had lost a leg. The marine had a question.

"Can you tell me something, Congressman?"


"Why are we still in Afghanistan?"

'We've won the war'

Congressman Jones says he has no answer to that, because he is campaigning for all the troops to come out now.

"After the death of Bin Laden the president should have announced that we've won the war, the war is over and we are going to start bringing our troops home."

He's contemptuous of the argument that they need to stay to train Afghans.

President Barack Obama meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, left, at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, March 28, 2010. President Obama says Afghans now need to take charge of their own affairs

"They've had 10 years. They say they're trying to train the Afghans to be soldiers and police. Give me 10 years and I could train a monkey to ride a tricycle."

If the president did turn around and announce a total pullout it would delight not only Congressman Jones, not only Democrats but, according to polls, the majority of voters. But he's not going to do it.

The Republicans would attack him for cutting and running. The military would agree. And so would most foreign policy experts.

Ahmed Rashid, possibly the most perceptive observer of the conflict, has a new book out.

It makes depressing reading and laments Mr Obama's lack of grip on the war. He told me it was a mistake to set a deadline for a pullout.

"Certainly it was a very big mistake when he announced it when the surge first happened back in 2008/9, and he has to live with this albatross around his neck.

"But now there is talk of bringing the date forward and the troops could be out by next year," the Pakistani journalist said.

"I think that could be a huge mistake. One problem with President Obama has been that his policies have generally been supported, but none of them have been followed through with consistency. We don't want to be fumbling around with new dates.

"So far the administration has been sticking to 2014. If you pull out earlier you are really signalling that the Americans are collapsing and can't maintain their troops any longer - that would be a very negative signal to send. "

'Air of gloom'

After some debate with allies like Britain, the White House does seem firm. President Obama's deputy security advisor Ben Rhodes says the Nato meeting in Chicago in May will be the next milestone.

I asked him the same question the mutilated marine asked Congressman Jones: why was America still at war?

"The United States is meeting its core objective which is to defeat al-Qaeda and deny it a safe haven. Secondly we have a plan in place to wind down the war responsibly," he said. "So we are working on a plan that does bring the war to a close."

"That involves 33,000 US troops coming out by the end of the summer and a full transition to the Afghans by 2014."

"What we don't want to happen is the international community leaves and the Afghan government is not able to secure itself - then you have a situation where al-Qaeda can re-establish itself and the Taliban is over-running the country."

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Ten years ago the Americans went into Afghanistan to topple the Taliban. Now, they seem desperate for a solution that includes the enemy they are still fighting. ”

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But isn't the president only sticking to this because he's trapped by internal American politics?

"The president has had criticism from some Republican candidates who don't want a timeline to bring the war to a close," Mr Rhodes replied.

"He made a clear statement last June when he moved faster than some of his generals wanted him to do, so I think the president was comfortable saying 'we do need to bring this war to a close, we need to do so as fast as we responsibly can but we have a commitment to the Afghans and to the alliance'."

Although some recent assessments say the war is going better than you might think, there is a general air of gloom about the eventual outcome.

Indeed, it struck me forcefully that the recent Taliban decision to suspend talks was greeted with real dismay.

Think about it. Ten years ago the Americans went into Afghanistan to topple the Taliban. Now, they seem desperate for a solution that includes the enemy they are still fighting.

End game

Ahmed Rashid is insistent that this is the only sensible way forward.

"Obviously things are deteriorating very fast in Afghanistan. It's not entirely his [Obama's] fault, but where he should be pulling out all the stops is in these negations with the Taliban," he said.

"These negotiations have been going terribly slowly, the president seems to be hedging his bets here in case he gets too much Republican criticism that he is soft on terrorism.

"The danger is these negotiations are becoming hostage to the American electoral calendar. Now that would be a disaster for the Americans, because what we need is an end to the civil war."

I ask Ben Rhodes about the talks: are they important for the end game?

"Absolutely. We believe if you look at the history of insurgency there is a military component in bringing them to an end but there is always a political solution as well.

"Ultimately Afghans are the ones who have to reconcile with one another and determine how they are going to live in their country together," he said.

"What this process can do is give a path to those Afghans who want to give up violence and don't want to be associated with al-Qaeda. They can come into the government and come into society again and give up the fighting that has gone on for so many years.

"The President has made it clear he is supportive of a political resolution but ultimately the Afghan Government is the lead.

Whether Barack Obama wins or loses the election in November, the end of America's longest war will be part of his legacy.

Long after 2014 the impact of the war will still reverberate in Afghanistan and throughout the region. It is hard to see a happy ending.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • rate this

    Comment number 19.


    Poor examples the US was kicked out of those countries you cite when the governments proved incorruptible and would not agree to a further US military presence or money. In Iraq the US is 'leaving' sort of because that government will not give immunity to US soldiers for any war crimes they commit. US still hasn't left Europe but seeks ways to remain. Any foreign bases on US soil?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Let's not be disengenuous in our reasons on the Afghan war just to hold a position. The US went into Afghanistan as it did into Iraq for its own agenda not because anybody in the American administration either Bush or Obama cared a damn for the peoples of either of these two countries. Look what Assad in Syria is doing no different from Saddam. Is the US ready to invade Syria? No. Iran yes!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    #14 Perhaps you should read through Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution. Yes I suppose I was a bit redundant by saying that war is destructive, however I never realized that expressing an opinion was the same as complaining. Thanks for correcting me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    This war was handed to Obama by the Bushies - i.e he didn't start it but he has to finish it. We should have been out of there years ago. We could have located and removed OBL without a massive military invasion - oh, wait, isn't that what we actually did by using Seal Team Six? Unable to find an answer to 'why are the there?' I think I'm shifted to 'how do we get out?' as the defining question.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Congressman Jones and all of his neoconservative, flag-waving, war-mongering buddies in the House and Senate can, along with their suddenly-discovered "remorse," Rot in Hell for All Eternity as far as I'm concerned -- and I sincerely hope they do.

    Let God forgive them. I won't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    #1 "By continuing an unconstitutional undeclared destructive war at the expensive...

    If it is undeclared, it can't be unconstitutional. Complaining that the war is destructive is also quite clever. Can you think of any other kind of war?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    "Ultimately Afghans are the ones who have to reconcile with one another and determine how they are going to live in their country together,"

    This one statement will never change no matter how long we stay there. We did what we could, it's up to the Afghans now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    re. 2.ColadadelCid"
    "Afghanistan will not be left to the Afghans. US never leaves anyplace."

    Mexico, The Phillipines, Panama, Grenada--all countries the U.S. once invaded and has left. Also, the U.S. once had military bases in France and Libya that they left when the host government asked them to. Those are just the examples I can think of off the top of my head.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    5000 - 7000 security forces would have been deployed to safeguard OIL pipeline. But Karzai has denounces US military excesses; even before civilian attack, Karzai had told US to turn over all its prisons to Afghan control; he demanded an immediate halt to US military nighttime raids. US arrogantly rejected both, evidently winning hearts & minds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    How can the USA and UK afford this war and why are there so few voices saying that this public expenditure must be cut to reduce the deficit. Elective war is obviously the top priority receiving extraordinary establishment consensus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    $7.6B, 1,040 mile-long TAPI natural gas pipeline is history. In 1995 Turkmenistan & Pakistan MoU: TAPI - 33 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas a year projected to run from Turkmenistan's Dauletabad Gas Field across Afghanistan & Pakistan, terminate at the NW Indian Fazilka. Now 2 years after MoU signed by Central Asia Gas Pipeline Ltd. consortium, led by US Unocal, deal is dead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Because of attack on civilians & its consequences, no one is likely to invest in a multi-billion dollar OIL PIPELINE without secure conditions. Afghan President Hamid Karzai labeled the civiulian attack a massacre. The Taliban have pulled out from reconciliation talks. It's over. End game. Dead as Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Congressman Jones said, "They've had 10 years. They say they're trying to train the Afghans to be soldiers and police. Give me 10 years and I could train a monkey to ride a tricycle."

    Perhaps, but it's more difficult when the other monkeys keep bombing your tricycle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Reverberations from March 11th attack by US soldier on 2 Afghan villages continue to abrade US-Afghan relations, the deteriorating security situation there after a decade of foreign military intervention will more than likely claim another victim: long-proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Impatience is understandable. We are essentially “done” with Afghanistan, having crushed Al Qaeda, punished the Taliban and killed Osama Ben Laden. But now we must get out without throwing everything into turmoil. Orderly withdrawal will take through 2014 anyway so, as much as we hate to admit it, we must “stay the course” again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Obama has painted himself into a box. He has tried and failed to appease his own base which wanted US troops out of Afghanistan years ago.

    Obama was absolutely wrong to have a "surge" in Afghanistan and also declared a date for the first troops to leave. The Taliban and leaders of major countries are not as stupid as Obama believes - they know the US will in Afghanistan is weakening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    It is very kind of you to point out that Obama had no grip on this war.

    It is a small consolation for the casualties his modifications to the "rules of engagement" have caused.

    It is a small consolation for the malaise he leaves in all that he has involved himself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    There is no 'end game' in Afghanistan there is only the political public relations necessity of diminishing US presence but not removing it. Karzai is a US puppet that is very clear the US thus will use him to get an agreement for purpetual US military presence in reduced form for internal influence militarily and politically. Afghanistan will not be left to the Afghans. US never leaves anyplace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I can not see how the war in Afghanistan will end in success. By continuing an unconstitutional undeclared destructive war at the expensive of US and ISAF forces and the civilians of Afghanistan, the US is only damaging its standing on the world stage and decreasing security by creating more enemies. It's time we pulled out immediately. Saving face is not a reason to continue a war.


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