NATO leaders stuck to an upbeat script at their Lisbon summit during the weekend of Nov. 19-21, announcing a formal timetable aimed at ending combat operations in Afghanistan and leaving security duties in local hands by the end of 2014 — provided, of course, that the Afghans are up to the task.
The target date pushes the endgame a couple of more years away, but it remains a goal, not a deadline, very much as Barack Obama's summer 2011 promise was. It does not mask the widening cracks in the alliance — specifically, between U.S. military officials, on the one hand, who insist that the current counterinsurgency campaign needs more time to have an impact, and European troop contributors, on the other, who are skeptical of the strategy and looking for a face-saving way out. The Afghans are themselves divided, debating whether the presence of foreign troops is driving the conflict or the only thing keeping the Kabul government from total collapse.
Time's cover story this week is "A Tale of Soldiers and a School," looking at the determined efforts of U.S. troops to try to win hearts and minds by reopening a school deep in the heartland of the Taliban.
"The Pir Mohammed School was built by Canadians in 2005, in Senjaray, a town just outside the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. It is said that 3,000 students attended, including some girls — although that seems a bit of a stretch, given the size and rudimentary nature of the campus. There are two buildings, a row and a horseshoe of classrooms, separated by a playground in a walled compound. No doubt, the exaggerations about the school's size reflect a deeper truth: most everyone in Senjaray loved the idea that their children were learning to read and write — except the local Taliban. They closed the school in 2007, breaking all the windows and furniture, booby-trapping the place, lacing the surrounding area with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), daring the Canadians to reopen it. But the Canadians were overmatched, and it wasn't until December of 2009, when the Americans came to Senjaray, that people began to talk about reopening the school.
It was, in fact, a no-brainer, a perfect metaphor. The Taliban closed schools; the Americans opened them. That this particular school was located deep in the enemy heartland, in a district — Zhari — that was 80% controlled by the Taliban, an area the Russians called the Heart of Darkness and eventually refused to travel through, in a town that will be strategically crucial when the most important battle of the war in Afghanistan — the battle for Kandahar — is contested this summer, made it all the more perfect. "
The road to success for President Obama's Afghanistan strategy runs through India, goes an increasingly familiar refrain. That's because reversing the Taliban's momentum requires getting rid of the movement's sanctuary in Pakistan, where the insurgent leadership is known to be based in and around the city of Quetta. But while Pakistan is aggressively tackling its domestic Taliban, it has consistently declined to act against Afghan Taliban groups based on its soil — because it sees the Afghan Taliban as a useful counterweight to what it believes is the dominant influence in today's Afghanistan of Pakistan's arch-enemy, India. Unless India can be persuaded to take steps to ease tensions with Pakistan, some suggest, Pakistan will not be willing to shut down the Afghan Taliban.