In an opinion piece in the NY Daily News, John Nagl argues that though things seem grim in Afghanistan, we can still “win”, for three reasons:

The war in Afghanistan is winnable for three reasons: because for the first time the coalition fighting there has the right strategy and the resources to begin to implement it, because the Taliban are losing their sanctuaries in Pakistan and because the Afghan government and the security forces are growing in capability and numbers. None of these trends is irreversible, and they are not in themselves determinants of victory. But they demonstrate that the war can be won if we display the kind of determination that defeating an insurgency requires.

Unfortunately, with respect to the second point, the Taliban are hardly “losing their sanctuaries in Pakistan” – in fact, they’ve become an infestation in the teeming city of Karachi, and are probably a permanent fixture now:

The sprawling southern city, with its population of about 18 million, is an ideal place for militants to get lost in the crowd.

“The Taliban are clever enough to keep a low profile, but their presence is growing,” said a local police chief who has been fighting them for years.

He is in charge of Sohrab Goth, a down-at-heel district of four million on the edge of the city, which is a Taliban safe haven. The chief asked not to be named.

“I’m on enough hit lists already,” he said.

(…) They are consolidating their operations in Karachi, according to the police chief. He says they are creating a new tier of local leaders in areas they control, rather than relying on one overall ‘Emir’, as in the past.

Pakistan’s financial capital offers the Taliban rich pickings. For the most part this is where they make money, not where they strike.

They raise funds through extortion, bank robberies and kidnappings – money that is funnelled back to training camps and bases in the tribal areas, where suicide bombings are planned.

(…) Security experts say the Taliban in Karachi present a new threat for Pakistan and the West, because they are forging links with other militant networks and splinter groups.

“They have started to co-operate,” said another senior police officer, who also spoke anonymously.

“They can help each other, and these splinter groups can do anything.”

One study of militant strength in the city suggested as many as 17 different militant organisations and splinter groups were present.

Groups are getting harder to track because they are fracturing, according to Muhammed Amir Rana of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, who monitors militant networks.

As the article makes clear, the Taliiban presence in Karachi is an opportunity for radicalization of Western muslims angry over the collateral damage and aerial bombing by US drones – case in point, Faisal Shahzad, who appears in court again today, to enter a plea for his attempted bombing in Times Square.

This whole feedback loop undermines the other arguments for how we can succeed in Afghanistan to any degree. If the mission of our troops was limited to protecting the nascent institutions of the Afghan state from Takliban predation, then the image of our presence would not be as occupier but guarantor. However, the continual use of drones leads to repeated tragedies – by some estimates, 30% of casualties are “non-militants” which is a shocking number if you think about what our primary objectives are suppoosed to be.

The basic disconnect in our Afghanistan strategy is that we argue for rule of law and democracy on one hand, and then engage in extrajudicial assassinations on the other. And with a 30% rate of mistakes, such a policy is indefensible. The UN Human Rights Council released a report (PDF) in May about the “targeted killings” which concluded,

Although the use of civilians as “shields” is prohibited, one side’s unlawful use of civilian shields does not affect the other side’s obligation to ensure that attacks do not kill civilians in excess of the military advantage of killing the targeted fighter.

The full report makes detailed recommendations about improving guidelines and policies for drone usage, but these are nuances that are lost in the fog of war; the bottom line is that drones usage has soared, and despite the military insistence that they are necessary, are doing more harm than good.

And the muslim world is noticing. One year after Obama’s Cairo speech, global skepticism about Obama’s agenda in muslim countries is on the rise – as a new Pew poll makes depressingly clear

America’s overall image has also slipped slightly in Indonesia, although 59% still give the U.S. a positive rating in the world’s largest predominantly Muslim nation.

Publics of other largely Muslim countries continue to hold overwhelmingly negative views of the U.S. In both Turkey and Pakistan — where ratings for the U.S. have been consistently low in recent years — only 17% hold a positive opinion. Indeed, the new poll finds opinion of the U.S. slipping in some Muslim countries where opinion had edged up in 2009. In Egypt, America’s favorability rating dropped from 27% to 17% — the lowest percentage observed in any of the Pew Global Attitudes surveys conducted in that country since 2006.

(…) Among Muslim publics — except in Indonesia where Obama lived for several years as a child — the modest levels of confidence and approval observed in 2009 have slipped markedly. In Egypt the percentage of Muslims expressing confidence in Obama fell from 41% to 31% and in Turkey from 33% to 23%.

Last year only 13% of Pakistani Muslims expressed confidence in Obama, but this year even fewer (8%) hold this view. And while views of Obama are still more positive than were attitudes toward President Bush among most Muslim publics, significant percentages continue to worry that the U.S. could become a military threat to their country.

The bottom line is that though our intentions in Afghanistan are good, the execution of policy towards those goals is at cross-purposes. As Admiral Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, puts it

To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate.

Well, I agree, Admiral. But why then are we still using drones and targeted killings? What do these actions communicate?

If the US were to make a bold statement – such as renouncing the concept of collateral damage entirely – then there would be less opportunity for the Taliban and Al Qaeda to prey on disaffection of muslims worldwide – including muslims in the US. The benefit of this would far outweigh the downside of letting an occassional militant escape, because the danger is more from the ideology than the ideologues.

The question is whether the US military has enough strategic sense, or whether Obama has enough political courage. Unfortunately, both these are in short supply.

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