Presidential emissary Richard Holbrooke soaked up a lot of advice during three days of private meetings in Afghanistan and Pakistan this week. The lament of an Afghan lawmaker crystallized the problems facing the U.S. and its ally.
"The Taliban are not strong, we are weak" the lawmaker said, referring to the radical Islamic movement that has stalemated U.S. forces and the frail Afghan government. "That's why they look strong."
The remark by the parliamentarian, who asked for anonymity because of concern over Taliban retribution, reflected a central paradox of the war: The insurgents cannot defeat the U.S. and NATO on the battlefield, yet they have drawn tens of thousands more American troops into the conflict and inflicted a growing toll in blood and disaffection.
Ordinary Afghans are deeply disappointed in a government sapped by corruption and unable to provide basic services. And now it is about to enter a perilous period led by a holdover president.
Many Afghans view the Taliban, which brutally ruled the country from the mid-1990s until U.S. forces drove it from power in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as a more tolerable alternative.
It was clear from Holbrooke's trip that the Obama administration feels a sense of urgency. It worries not only about losing the patience of the American public but also about Afghan disillusionment.
Administration officials hope that a presidential election scheduled for August will lay the groundwork for a turnaround. Their way out of the Afghan conflict is pinned to getting the government on a more solid footing so that the country's army and police can grow strong enough to secure the nation without foreign troops.
Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, believes that the Taliban's strength is easily overstated. Yet he predicts that even as 21,000 additional U.S. troops flow into the country in coming months, progress will not be immediate.
"I think we're going to see another violent year," he told several reporters who accompanied Holbrooke and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on their trip. After attending meetings in Kabul and Islamabad, the senior officials visited New Delhi, India, before returning to Washington.
Why is the violence still rising?
"It's going up," McKiernan said, "not because the Taliban are stronger. It's going up because the insurgency is very resilient and very adaptive." Echoing the warning from the Afghan legislator, McKiernan expressed concern that already-low Afghan support for the government is declining further.
Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, worried aloud about the time he spent on the trip dealing with the short-term issue of who will lead Afghanistan between May, when President Hamid Karzai's term expires, and August, when elections are to be held.
After leaving Afghanistan, Holbrooke said he had won agreement from the major Afghan political figures that Karzai should remain in office during the interim period.
But even keeping Karzai in office during that holding period leaves the impression among some Afghans that the Obama administration is promoting his candidacy. Holbrooke insisted repeatedly on the trip that the U.S. neither supports nor opposes Karzai or any other candidate for the presidency.
Beyond concerns about the upcoming election, there are still other unsettling pieces of the Afghan puzzle:
—Pakistan. The Afghan conflict is unlikely to be settled until the problem of Taliban and al-Qaida havens inside Pakistan is fixed. Al-Qaida's presence in Pakistan still gives it the capability to again launch a major attack on the United States. That is why Obama said the core goal of his strategy is to dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan.
—Security. It will be years before the Afghan army and police are capable of providing it on their own, and the size of those forces will have to grow well beyond the numbers Obama cited when he announced his new strategy. The current goal is 134,000 in the army, plus 82,000 police, by the end of 2011. That may have to be doubled, several American officials said privately.
—The economy. Agriculture, a potentially powerful engine of revitalization for landlocked, resource-poor Afghanistan, has not been a big focus of international assistance since 2001. Holbrooke vowed to change that, but it remains a long-term prospect.