- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2010

According to U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the good news from Afghanistan is that the Taliban are not winning. The bad news is

that the coalition isn’t either.

“I think that in the last year we’ve made a lot of progress,” the commander of international forces said in an interview last week. But by progress, he meant stopping the momentum the insurgents had built up the previous year. Overall, the general said, “I think I’d be prepared to say at this point, nobody is winning.” It’s sobering when a stalemate is considered positive movement in war.

“You are losing support of the people because of the failure of our government,” Dr. Abdullah Abdullah told The Washington Times at a roundtable interview on Tuesday. Dr. Abdullah was the first minister of foreign affairs for Afghanistan after the Taliban regime was overthrown, and last year was runner-up in the scandal-plagued Afghan presidential election. Dr. Abdullah believes the way to defeat the Taliban is to “win the people,” but that’s easier said than done.

In areas recently liberated from the Taliban, such as the town of Marja in Helmand Province, which was the focus of a coalition offensive in February, “the people are not yet convinced that the situation can be sustained,” he said. They are cautious about working with the government because Taliban influence is still being felt in the area and those who cooperate may be marked for death if and when the radicals return.

The pervasive Taliban influence isn’t the only problem. Dr. Abdullah believes the Afghan people are being squeezed between the radicals and a corrupt government machine typified by nepotism, cronyism and payoffs. The narcotics issue is a prime example. The endemic heroin trade benefits both the narco-terrorists and members of the government who also engage in it. “Do we have the moral authority to go to the farmers for whom this is a source of subsistence livelihood,” he asked, “and say stop doing it when top level people are benefiting in the millions of dollars?” Dr. Abdullah said the government lacks the political will to take on this problem, and the United States “is a witness to what’s going on and is not doing much.”

Dr. Abdullah believes that prevailing against the insurgents is impossible without first reforming the Afghan government. In order to make substantial progress, “the power structure and issues of governance of Kandahar cannot be left the same,” he said. The Afghan government is considered so unreliable that citizens turn to the Taliban to resolve disputes. Taliban justice is swift, certain and Shariah-based, all of which appeals to Afghans who have lost confidence in government officials who must be bribed to do anything.

Dr. Abdullah understands the frustration expressed by Americans who think the nation-building mission is doomed to failure: “My fear is that because the Afghan government does not deliver [for the people], some in the United States would find excuses to believe it cannot work.”

The stalemate in Afghanistan is three-sided: The Taliban have been blunted but not defeated; international forces can liberate Afghan cities but only for as long as they remain in them; and the government is viewed as a necessary evil with no inclination to reform. The Afghan people are caught in the middle, waiting for something to give.