Thursday, February 25, 2010

Taking It to the Taliban

Time Online

Two days before launching the most ambitious military campaign of the Obama Administration, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, convened a meeting in Kabul of 450 tribal elders and scholars from Helmand province. The general's objective: to build support for Operation Moshtarak, a massive offensive on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. McChrystal ran through the military phase of the plan, which would involve 6,000 U.S. Marines and British soldiers and 4,500 Afghan troops and police. Then he described how these troops would protect the town while a "government in a box" — a corps of Afghan officials who had been training for this moment for months — would start administering the town. The elders all signed off on the plan, but not before one of them warned the American general, "You have to understand that if you don't do what you say, we'll all be killed."

McChrystal repeated the chieftain's words Feb. 18 in a secure video teleconference with President Barack Obama and his top advisers on Afghanistan and Pakistan. By then, the operation, by all accounts, was going well. NATO troops had encountered only sporadic resistance; much of the town was under the control of the U.S. Marines. British-led forces, meanwhile, had taken the nearby community of Showal. Some government in a box was already being unpacked.

There was good news from other fronts too. In Pakistan, a joint operation in Karachi by the CIA and Pakistan's own spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had netted a very big fish: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban's military chief. In quick succession, the ISI had also rolled up two of the Taliban's "shadow" governors of Afghanistan's provinces and another senior figure. And in North Waziristan, near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, a missile launched from a CIA drone had struck at the heart of the Haqqani network, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group responsible for countless attacks on NATO troops. The network's current leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, survived, but his younger brother Mohammed had been killed.

After a year of mostly grim tidings from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama could have been allowed a moment of satisfaction. But McChrystal's recounting of the Helmand chieftain's warning ensured that the mood in the White House's Situation Room during the conference call was somber. According to National Security Adviser Jim Jones, who was there, Obama added an exhortation of his own, using the idioms of counterinsurgency warfare. "Do not clear and hold what you are not willing to build and transfer," he told McChrystal, a maxim he had repeated often over the previous months. "You've heard me say it many times, but it bears repeating," Obama said as he signed off.

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