It's a five-hour flight from Sana'a, Yemen, to Kabul, Afghanistan, and with the 90-minute time change, it is close to 7:30 p.m. when we arrive.
Afghanistan is the most important part of our journey because the United States will soon face a difficult and weighty decision on whether or not to further augment our troops beyond the 20,000 additional troops already deployed by the Obama Administration. This latest deployment brings the total number of American troops in Afghanistan to approximately 68,000.
General Stan McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Iraq, meets us at the airport with helicopters that take us to his headquarters very near where a suicide bomber has caused the death of several people and the injury of about 90 others earlier in the day. It is a unwelcome reminder of how much more dangerous Afghanistan has become since my last visit here in December 2006.
General McChrystal is a smart, focused counter-insurgency expert who previously headed the Special Forces Command. A straight-forward leader, he won my confidence with his frank answers to my questions about Afghanistan in a meeting in my office prior to his confirmation.
Along with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and their aides, the General provides us with a detailed briefing. He begins with his chilling assessment that the situation in Afghanistan "is serious and deteriorating." He shows us a color-coded map that indicates areas of Taliban control, and outlines the new strategy (clear, build, hold, and transition) that began on July 2nd with the deployment of two additional battalions of Marines in Helmand province.
A great deal of the discussion focuses on whether or not more troops are needed. The General says that he has completed his analysis and will report his recommendations through his chain of command to the President in September. It seems, however, pretty clear to me that he will be asking for more troops although he does not say that since he won't preempt his report to the President. I have enormous respect for General McChyrstal but remain troubled by the prospect of deploying more troops.
I ask General McChrystal whether any of the Taliban are reconcilable since I have my doubts. In replying "yes," he makes an interesting distinction (as does General Nicholson the following day) between "Big T," the Taliban leaders driven by extremist ideology and often from outside the region, versus "Little T," the local day laborer who works for the Taliban simply for money.
We also spend considerable time discussing corruption, which is endemic in Afghanistan, undermining public confidence in government and burdening the population. The President's own brother is alleged to be taking bribes from drug traffickers moving the poppy crop.
We discuss the need for an aggressive anti-corruption effort, the urgency of increasing the size of the Afghan Army, the contributions of our NATO partners, and the impact of the upcoming presidential elections which will take place on Thursday.
The good news is that the Afghans are keenly interested in the elections; there have been real debates, and the Afghans have true choices. Not only President Karzai and his closest competitor former, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, but also about 40 other candidates are on the ballot.
The very bad news: in some villages, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the Taliban are threatening to cut off the ink-stained fingers of anyone who votes. Security is so lacking in some areas that the elections commission is not even setting up voting booths, requiring Afghans to travel some distance if they wish to vote. Fraud is also likely to be a problem.
Afghans widely perceive the U.S. as backing Karzai in the election. To avoid fueling that perception three days before the election, our delegation decides not to meet with President Karzai.
Instead, we continue our discussion over a very late dinner at the embassy with the Ministers of various Departments (Defense, Interior, etc.) and the National Security Advisor.
I take this opportunity to talk about the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan, recalling President Karzai's early commitment to educating girls yet his decision this year to sign a law that was a giant step backwards in the rights of women. The Judicial Minister quickly said that the law had been repealed and had been a "huge mistake."
Tommorrow we will go to Camp Leatherneck, the Marine encampment in Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold.