So, we celebrate by writing every news story ever written about the war.
KABUL – Today the war in Afghanistan passed a grim milestone: it turned nine. At a time when more soldiers have been killed there than ever before, America’s war in Afghanistan is at a critical juncture, a make-or-break time for President Obama’s strategy to reverse Taliban momentum.
Almost as if to celebrate the occasion, three troops and six civilians died in an IED explosion in Helmand, the heartland of Afghanistan’s restive south where NATO forces are engaged in a deadly fight with the Taliban.
This latest explosion raises troubling questions about the flagging counterinsurgency strategy employed by U.S. forces. “This is yet more evidence the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable,” Matthew Hoh, a former State Department official who resigned in protest of the war and now directs the Afghanistan Study Group, said. “We cannot win a civil war we’re not a part of.”
John Nagl, President of the Center for a New American Security, has faith in the strategy employed by U.S. troops. “We finally have a properly resourced counterinsurgency strategy,” he recently told a group of reporters. “We should support the efforts of General Petraeus to pacify the country and protect the population.”
Meanwhile, the opium economy continues to undermine efforts to settle the region. Helmand province by itself provides half the world’s heroin, and its sale funds the Taliban insurgency. In nearby Kandahar, the heartland and spiritual home of the Taliban, watchdog groups allege that Afghan government officials are involved in the trade as well.
Many Afghans express frustration with the issue of corruption. At a recent town hall meeting convened by U.S. troops, Abdullah, who, like many Afghans, has only one name, asked why they don’t remove corrupt officials. “They steal from us,” he said, “yet you let them stay.” Lt. Col. Mike Everyman, 44, of Sarasota Springs, FL, responded with a simple plea to support their efforts to “clean up” the local government.
In Kabul, embattled Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a statement from his estate. “These dead civilians are innocent victims of a reckless U.S. military,” he said. “We must stop the worst of this fighting and begin outreach to the Taliban.”
Members of Afghanistan’s parliament disagree. Berhanuddin Rabbani, the former leader of the Northern Alliance, rejected Karzai’s appeal to reconciliation. At his fortified residence in the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul, he said, “We cannot negotiate with the criminals. Any attempt to do so might provoke strong opposition from the people.”
At issue are efforts to reach out to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who once received funding from the CIA during the 1980s war against the Soviets. Hekmatyar, whose insurgent group, Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin, is linked to al Qaeda, has been open about his desire to reconcile with the government, though there remain serious doubts about his ability to stick to an agreement. Analysts raise similar doubts about outreach efforts to Mullah Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Taliban.
“We don’t know if these negotiations will work,” Seth Jones, an analyst with RAND, said. “These problems plague all invaders of Afghanistan.”
He continued, “It’s why we call it the graveyard of empires,” echoing the title of his book analyzing the increasingly unpopular war.
Mullah Omar is rumored to live in Quetta, a major center of Taliban operations.
“The Taliban and al Qaeda are on the run,” CIA Director Leon Panetta told reporters. “We have severely degraded their capability to execute terrorist attacks through an aggressive drone campaign in Pakistan.”
“We’ve definitely reversed their momentum,” General David Petraeus, the commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, added. “With enough time, we can repeat in Afghanistan the same success we saw in Iraq during the Surge,” he said, referring to the 2007 increase in troop numbers widely credited with defeating the Iraqi insurgency.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, a car bomb exploded near the Ministry of Finance, killing 54. The explosion coincided with Interior Minister Jawad Bolani’s announcement that he was cutting subsidies to the “Sons of Iraq” militias, which the U.S. funded and armed to defeat the Sunni insurgents.