Two of President Obama's top advisers on Afghanistan – Sen. John Kerry and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel – said Sunday that the United States should not commit more troops to Afghanistan until Afghans sort through their political crisis.
The statements are further evidence that the Obama administration views the political situation in Afghanistan – and not the Taliban – as the primary threat to American success there.
"The mission is not defined exclusively by the military component," said Senator Kerry on CNN's "State of the Union."
It will also depend upon the state of the Afghan government, he said: "What will the government of Afghanistan be able to deliver."
What it must deliver, he and others say, is some minimum level of competence. Many Afghans join the Taliban – or at least accept it – because of the government's near-total failure to uphold the rule of law or provide the most basic services, such as water and electricity.
Without a degree of competence from the Afghan government, no number of troops will ever be enough to make Afghans accept what they see as an incompetent government at best, or an illegitimate government at worst.
"The threat of failure of the Afghan government is empowering the Taliban to be able to recruit people because of frustration and distrust," Kerry said.
Washington policymakers have become increasingly frustrated and distrustful of the Afghan government, too – hence the current White House strategy review.
The issue came to a head in August with allegations that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's virtually stole a presidential election through massive fraud. Kerry said "it would be intensely irresponsible for the president of the United States to commit more troops to the country" with the result of the election in doubt, said Kerry.
The crisis is merely a symptom of the deep political dysfunction in Afghanistan – the chronic corruption and cronyism problem that has been allowed to fester for eight years as the US turned its attention away from Afghanistan and toward Iraq.
In his battlefield assessment, the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, wrote that the most "significant aspect" of Afghanistan's resurgent opium trade was that it fueled government corruption. US officials have alleged that Karzai's brother is kingpin of the opium trade in Kandahar.
In the race for the spoils of power, the functions of an effective government – law enforcement and justice foremost among them – have been ignored or used to sanction further corruption.
Such comments suggest that the questions vexing Obama's war council are not tactical. Rather, they are fundamental: Is the Afghan government rotten to its core?
If so, it throws into question the entire US strategy, as Emanuel suggested Sunday: "What American forces are expected to do is create space for the Afghans to fill." In other words, as in Iraq, the US will attempt to drive insurgents from population centers, giving people enough security so that a viable economy and government can take root.
But Emanuel went on to ask: "Do we have a credible partner to fill the space we're going to create?"
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