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Carl Hiassen: Little reason for optimism about Afghanistan

According to the polls, President Obama's speech announcing the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan won over a majority of Americans.

Thomas H. Johnson was not among them.

"It sounded a lot like a George Bush speech, frankly," he said. "There was nothing new. It's old wine in bigger bottles."

Johnson is a professor at the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. I met him in September, shortly after he'd returned from four months in southern Afghanistan.

During that time, Johnson interviewed numerous Taliban commanders. He came away convinced that American military efforts will fail unless the administration drastically changes its approach.

Johnson was particularly struck by the creeping resurgence of the once-vanquished Taliban. "I witnessed people Bluetoothing Taliban music from one cell phone to the next. I have a whole CD-ROM full of Taliban poetry," he said. "They're preaching a message that resonates in that part of the country."

After the United States turned its attention to Iraq, Taliban operatives resurfaced in Afghan villages and took strong roles, filling a vacuum left by the corrupt, mistrusted Afghan government. The Taliban have also taken advantage of local disenchantment with the American troop presence.

"The Afghan people, the average people, have lost patience with us. They expected a lot of us," Johnson said. "After eight years in this country, we still haven't been able to supply security and justice."

Obama says the primary U.S. mission is to wipe out al-Qaida, but the administration's own intelligence experts say there might be as few as 100 al-Qaida members in all Afghanistan. Most, including Osama bin Laden, are believed to be hiding in mountainous enclaves in Pakistan.

Johnson's view — and he's not alone — is that the battle lines in the war on terrorism have changed significantly since Sept. 11, 2001. "It's a different Taliban, and a different al-Qaida," he said. "But we have a tendency to lay old models on a new situation, and that worries me."

After his recent stay in Kandahar, Johnson conferred extensively with U.S. analysts. He's been studying Afghanistan and Central Asia since the 1980s, and his research is widely published. People pay attention to what he says.

In the Dec. 10 issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Johnson co-authored an article that began bluntly:

"There isn't the slightest possibility that the course laid out by Barack Obama in his Dec. 1 speech will halt or even slow the downward spiral of defeat in Afghanistan. None."

Like some others in his field, Johnson believes that the American strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan should be "nation-building" at the village level — and that the Taliban already have figured that out.

Meanwhile, the 30,000-troop surge announced by the president will focus on securing the country's urban centers, which aren't where the insurgency is spreading.

The Vietnam comparison to Afghanistan, rebuffed by Obama in his speech, is in Johnson's opinion tragically apt: "The reality on the ground is that Afghanistan is Vietnam redux."

He goes even further to say that Obama knows this war is unwinnable, and that the surge is meant to provide political cover in advance of a full U.S. withdrawal before the 2012 election.

Johnson sees it as the "same cynical exit strategy" devised by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to get American forces out of Vietnam. This is a harsh appraisal, but it can't be discounted.

Obama wouldn't be the first U.S. president to let domestic political concerns affect his military moves abroad, but he certainly campaigned as a different kind of leader.

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