By Jules Witcover

More than nine years after the Twin Towers came crashing down, the principal architects of that colossal crime remain at large. Osama bin Laden himself has eluded discovery, let alone capture, in what was the original justification for U.S. military action in Afghanistan.

Late last year, President Obama ostensibly refocused the American mission there to finding and eradicating the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and their collaborators. It was part of the rationale for his 30,000-troop surge into that forlorn desert country, but we're still battling a Taliban insurgency whose purpose remains overthrowing a divided and corrupt Afghan regime in Kabul.

By whatever name you want to call it, American policy still looks a lot like more nation-building, or at least perpetuating the government of a troublesome leader in President Hamid Karzai, who seems to go out of his way to bite the Washington hand that feeds him.

It's one of the prices we pay for trumpeting the sovereignty of a regime that has no qualms about asserting it in the face of American efforts to guide or cajole Karzai himself toward clean and effective politics where little now exists.

The latest pushback comes in the context of a script worthy of a James Bond flick, wherein a supposed Taliban imposter was somehow smuggled by a foreign agent or agents into secret peace talks with Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul.

His chief of staff, Muhammad Umor Daudzai, has told The Washington Post that last July or August British authorities brought the imposter to the Afghan president, but was found not to be the senior Taliban leader so represented.

Although Daudzai said no Americans were at the meeting, his further comments implied a rebuke as well to U.S. meddling into the Karzai regime's tentative approach to such peace talks. "This shows that this process should be Afghan-led and fully Afghanized," he told The Post. "The last lesson we draw from this: International partners should not get excited so quickly with those kind of things. . . . Afghans know this business, how to handle it. We handle it with care, we handle it with a result-based approach, with very less damage to all the other processes."

The prospects of possible Taliban interest in ending the fighting through some kind of political concessions from the Karzai regime have naturally aroused the hopes of British and American critics of the war and of Karzai for early withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

But the American military leadership particularly has continued to implement and defend the counterinsurgency plan orchestrated by the U.S. commander there, Gen. David Petraeus. He and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have insisted that Obama's timetable of next July for a beginning of any American troop pullout is only that, and that training and other U.S. support will continue to 2014.

That later deadline for completion of the American mission is one that Karzai himself set, and was generally accepted at the recent NATO meeting in Lisbon at which continued alliance commitment was pledged. An American objective in concurring was to disabuse Taliban thoughts of simply waiting out the U.S. departure.

Meanwhile, Obama must deal with Karzai, most recently about his concerns over civilian casualties from more aggressive U.S. tactics on the ground and from the air against Taliban targets, and continued uncertainty about the composition of and cooperation within the new Afghan parliament.

At home, Obama's political problems are only intensified by the war, especially in dealing with the anti-war sentiment among many liberals in his own party. What appears to them a gradual watering-down of his commitment to begin serious withdrawals by next July could have consequences for his reelection chances a year later.

For whatever reason, Afghanistan failed to emerge in debate as any issue of consequence in this month's congressional elections. But that isn't likely to be the case a year from now if the war is still going on, and the bulk of American forces are still there. By the mere passage of time, the war will be Obama's baby to justify after a decade of national frustration, debt and loss.


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© Jules Witcover

World - Troublesome Partner in Afghanistan | Global Viewpoint