US strategy for Afghanistan in disarray

Luckily for President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Afghanistan is not a burning issue on which the November election will be decided.

But while Americans look the other way, U.S. strategy is in disarray. Consider the treatment of Britain, whose defense secretary was only informed at the eleventh hour of Sunday night’s decision to curb joint patrols with Afghan military and police forces after 51 insider killings of NATO soldiers this year. The whole thing smacks of improvisation.

British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond had to return to Parliament for the second straight day yesterday to face a grilling, after telling MPS on Monday that partnering with Afghan forces remained the core of NATO strategy. He was only briefed on the order by the U.S. commander of NATO forces, Gen. John Allen, on Monday afternoon.

At the heart of the problem is the issue of trust — between Afghan security forces and NATO, of course, but also between the U.S. and Karzai governments.

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Officials no longer blame these so-called “green on blue” killings on rogue Afghans and recognize that the Taliban have been systematically infiltrating the Afghan National Security Forces. While they insist that the measure to curtail the joint patrols is temporary, it’s unclear how they can resume anytime soon, particularly given the renewed sectarian tensions over the anti-Islam film made in California. The Taliban are already taking the credit for the NATO decision on the joint patrols, which, a spokesman said, “is the start of their overall defeat in Afghanistan.”

The training of Afghan forces, so that they can take over full responsibility for security when NATO forces pull out by the end of 2014, has been the main plank of NATO policy until now. U.S. officials insist that this plan and the timeline remain on course.

But what now for the NATO exit strategy? In the U.K. there have already been calls from the opposition to pull out the 9,500 British troops in Afghanistan by Christmas in light of the new NATO military orders. It can only be a matter of time before pressing calls are heard in Washington too for an early withdrawal of the 68,000 American soldiers remaining at the end of this month.

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