- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 5, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The most important piece of President Obama’s long-awaited Afghanistan war strategy may well have been what he didn’t say in his Tuesday night speech - because he couldn’t.

Namely: America’s increased emphasis on its officially black practice of paying off Afghanistan’s Pashtun warlords to stop supporting - and hopefully start fighting - the Taliban insurgents who have been steadily infiltrating their lands ever since the midpoint of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Bribing warlords is unsavory, uncertain - yet essential, just as it was the unspoken but essential element of Mr. Bush’s so-called “surge” in Iraq.

Of course, increased troop numbers - the centerpiece of the news coverage of Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Obama’s surges - were important. It gave U.S. troops in Iraq the ability to better protect themselves while training Iraqi soldiers. Surely it will help U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan do the same.

But the surge couldn’t have succeeded if it was only a surge of troop numbers in Iraq. And it won’t succeed in Afghanistan unless it is matched by a surge in dollars spread within Pashtun tribes that constitute 45 percent of Afghanistan’s population. That is because Pashtuns - who distrust and even despise the corrupt Afghan government - also constitute all of the Taliban insurgent population.

That is why diverse experts have united in recommending new ammo to be used on the Afghan tribes: money, well targeted. “Buying, renting or bribing Pashtun tribes should become the centerpiece of America’s stabilization strategy,” wrote Fahreed Zakaria in Newsweek in September. And Arnaud de Borchgrave of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in The Washington Times: “A wise veteran Arab intelligence hand said Afghanistan is now tailor-made for deals with the principal tribal chiefs designed to detach them from the Taliban they fear more than U.S. and NATO troops.”

On Sunday, Washington was reminded just how uncertain and unsavory this business of bribing for democracy can be. In an excellently reported Washington Times article from the tribal regions of southern Afghanistan, correspondent Sara A. Carter began by quoting U.S. Army troops who had lost five members of their forces and three of their four Stryker vehicles in a month and a half at a remote outpost in the Maywand district.

“We have no one to fight corruption or get leaders in the provincial level to assist us,” said Capt. Casey Thoreen, commander of the Combat Outpost Rath. Ms. Carter next quoted another authority saying much the same thing - the Maywand district leader himself, Abeidullah Bawali. “The worst problem for us is corruption,” Mr. Bawali told The Washington Times.

But wait. The correspondent added this perspective: “U.S. military officials, however, say Mr. Bawali is a major part of the problem. According to numerous military officials who work in the region, Mr. Bawali is not a resident of Maywand district, he has taken payoffs in return for favors and he is the only provincial leader representing a poor province of 55,000 people. Mr. Bawali admitted to The Times that the Taliban’s capabilities in his district and sympathizers living among his people have made the security situation extremely difficult for Capt. Thoreen and his men. He denied he was corrupt, however.”

So that gives us all we need to grasp the perilous and precarious reality that is the U.S. and NATO dilemma in Afghanistan today. Inevitably, Mr. Obama’s Tuesday night speech transformed the Afghanistan war he inherited into the war he now owns. Afghanistan is Mr. Obama’s war now.

By putting more boots on the ground - at a stunning estimate of $1 million per soldier per year - Mr. Obama has given U.S. and NATO troops a fighting chance to prevent the Taliban from retaking the country they once governed so repressively.

By spreading more bucks through the tribal councils - at a cost that is, comparatively, a bargain - America may be able to rent, if not buy, time and even security.

So perhaps peace in Afghanistan can be at hand, at last. If so, the hand is outstretched and palm up.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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