For John McCain, campaign issues involving foreign wars are like an old sofa — push the springs down in one place and they pop up in another.
For now at least, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee can boast that the troop surge in Iraq, which he supported, is having a positive effect. Iraqi deaths in May were at their lowest this year, and American deaths were the lowest since the 2003 invasion.
Unfortunately, there's also a war in Afghanistan. And that isn't going so well because — as presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama charges — the Bush administration shifted too much attention to Iraq when it should have stayed focused on eliminating al-Qaida and its Taliban supporters in Afghanistan.
For the first time in five years, more U.S. and other coalition soldiers died last month on Afghan soil than Iraqi. Despite $16.5-billion in Pentagon aid, only two of 105 Afghan army units are "fully capable,'' according to the Government Accountability Office. And the Taliban is growing stronger in areas, to the point that fighters recently sprang 400 prisoners and threatened Kandahar, the country's second-largest city, before being repulsed by NATO forces last week.
"There's no question that the situation here is deteriorating,'' says Tim Lynch, head of Vigilant Strategic Services Afghanistan. "The problem is that the central government cannot exert influence or control into the provinces, and all kinds of people — Taliban, drug barons, warlords, petty criminals, military officers, etc. — are filling the power vacuum.''
Lynch, son of a retired general who lives in Tampa, is a 49-year-old no-nonsense ex-Marine. I got to know him when I visited Kabul, the capital, in late 2006.
While thousands of Americans have come and gone, Lynch has remained in Afghanistan, where his company provides security for Japanese aid workers, among others. He has traveled all over Afghanistan, giving him a good feel for what is going wrong — and right — there.
As he suggests, a huge problem is the weakness of the Kabul-based central government. The leadership woes start with President Hamid Karzai, who has been unable or unwilling to crack down on rampant corruption and firmly deal with regional warlords who derive much of their power from the opium poppy trade.
Karzai, who speaks English and cuts a dashing figure, still has the support of the West. But he is increasingly unpopular among Afghans, who have seen only modest improvement in their lives since the brutally repressive Taliban government was overthrown in 2001.
That's a problem, but also an opportunity, Lynch says.
While dislike for Karzai is strong, "the average Afghan has no use for the Taliban and their very conservative religious views, even though they are a conservative, religious people,'' Lynch says. Much of Afghanistan "desperately wants our help and appreciates us being there.''
The effectiveness of American aid efforts, though, has been hurt by the reluctance of U.S. contractors and aid workers to venture out unless they're in big armored SUVs with heavy security — security that, paradoxically, makes them highly visible targets.
The Japanese, by comparison, "spend a fraction what the U.S. does as far as security and operating expenses,'' Lynch says. "They are very, very effective in getting aid dollars to Afghanistan, and that's one area where I'm very critical of our government and its over-elaborate security precautions.''
Lynch also thinks the United States is squandering resources and goodwill trying to eradicate opium poppies, source of 93 percent of the world's heroin but also the only livelihood for many Afghans.
"It's a ridiculous policy that is only targeting the poorest and most vulnerable farmers," he says. "All the nice fields held by wealthy, connected Afghans are never touched.'' Rather than being destroyed, the poppies could be used for opiate-based analgesics in poor countries, he suggests.
On the military front, U.S. Marines have employed massive firepower to rout the Taliban from some areas that the British had virtually ceded to insurgents. But unlike Iraq, where most coalition troops are Americans under the command of Gen. David Petraeus, the 60,000 troops in Afghanistan come from several countries and lack a single strategic vision for countering the insurgency.
"I think that's a problem,'' says Lynch's father, retired Maj. Gen. Jarvis Lynch Jr. "They have different rules of engagement and different levels of aggressiveness that they're allowed to undertake. I don't think there's any particular unity of command.''
His son, though, remains optimistic that Afghanistan can be salvaged. He has expanded his business from Kabul — generally safe enough that his 22-year-old daughter did security checks at the airport — to the eastern city of Jalalabad. There he has a guesthouse and bar frequented by foreigners.
"I would say that 90 percent of the country is anything but a war zone,'' Lynch says. "All these people want is a little help to get a foot up. They're scratching their heads over how we've been here seven years and they still don't have electricity, but they are patient and willing to wait.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected]