T he current offensive in Helmand province is providing evidence that President Barack Obama's plan to begin pulling out of Afghanistan by summer 2011 will be a tough schedule to meet.
United States and NATO forces have encountered stiff resistance at times, but the belief is that many Taliban fighters simply melted away before the fight began. This is a pattern familiar to all who have tried to maintain order in Afghanistan. Now, Obama is insisting his administration is not simply chasing away insurgents who will return when the forces leave. He says that accompanying coalition forces is a "government in a box" that will be up and running within days after the area is secure.
That is the best way forward - to turn hearts and minds, to convince the population that they don't want the Taliban around, that their best interests are served by the central government, the U.S. and allies. The point of the mission, after all, is to make Afghanistan hostile toward al-Qaeda, and that requires a population that buys into a central government.
But success assumes locals are willing to accept the central government. For that to happen, the government has to work - it has to provide services and can't be overly corrupt.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, just left Afghanistan after a fact-finding mission. She believes the plan can work, but she noted: "It isn't as if we're going to be able to wave a magic wand and everything will work. ... This is still a very challenging environment."
Accidental civilian deaths can make it more challenging. On Monday, five died in a rocket attack. Last weekend, as many as 12 civilians were killed in a mobile artillery attack, though the Afghan interior minister said three of those killed were insurgents. Officials worry that the civilian deaths could harden opinion against the offensive.
This is especially true as the latest civilian deaths confirm a trend: Afghan civilian casualties increased 14 percent in 2009 over 2008, to the highest level since the U.S. arrived in 2001. Civilian deaths make it difficult for U.S. troops to operate, even when they have no involvement. Scared populations need to blame someone, and the only authority these days looks to be coalition forces.
One result of civilian deaths: Combat deaths suffered by American and coalition forces more than doubled in 2009. As more troops arrive, experts expect the toll to remain high.
And they play havoc with any timetable. Recently, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown heard from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who said: "With regard to training and equipping the Afghan security forces, five to 10 years would be sufficient. With regard to sustaining them ... the time period extends to 10 to 15 years."
The Obama administration says facts on the ground will determine actions, but the general plan is to begin pulling troops out in the summer of 2011.
But Afghanistan is still far from working smoothly, and the American plan demands swift results.
It's likely the Taliban will continue to fight, though in hit-and-run fashion, and by raining rockets into Kabul. History is clear on one point: Nothing in Afghanistan is ever easy, and the U.S. mission there will be no exception.
The Afghanistan surge was a positive step. The idea behind Obama's plan is still a good one. Civilian casualties are regrettably inevitable. But attaining the security needed to start pulling out looks as if it will stretch the timeline.
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