Afghanistan: Obama's Unanswered Questions

This story was filed by CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk at the United Nations.

(White House )
Eight years ago this month, the war in Afghanistan began, and in the coming weeks, President Obama will decide, after intense deliberation with his war council, what to do next.

The most puzzling, and troubling aspect of the deliberations, is how many genuinely basic questions remain unanswered. What are the goals? Who is in charge of the country where 100,000 troops are serving under U.S. and NATO command (and Mr. Obama is considering a dramatic increase)? And, of course, why?

Last week, the Associated Press reported a senior administration official had said that President Obama was ready to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan's future, and that U.S. troops would focus on al Qaeda. By way of explanation, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said some Taliban are in cahoots with al Qaeda, and some are not.

Above: President Obama attends a briefing on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House, Oct. 9, 2009.

Negotiating with the Taliban to allow some warlords to survive politically, in exchange for ridding the country of terrorists, seems to be a "Charlie Wilson's War" scenario the Obama administration might consider.

But memories are short. A few years ago, the Pakistani government (then President Pervez Musharraf) held local tribal council meetings, or "jirgas," with the Taliban to negotiate just that sort of arrangement.

After a lot of questioning in the British Parliament, it was revealed that the U.K. foreign intelligence agency, known as the MI6, was holding secret meetings with the Taliban for the same purpose: to convince them to give up al Qaeda.

All to no avail. But don't despair. There's a new plan, announced last month, to hold peace talks with Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, with the help of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah.

Since the 2001 invasion, Afghanistan has become a lot more complicated. A U.N. report issued last month concluded there is a "marriage of convenience" between anti-government insurgents and criminal groups which has spawned narcotics cartels in Afghanistan with direct links to the Taliban — and the report said collusion with corrupt Afghan officials is creating a crisis of security and law enforcement, and promoting widespread money laundering.

Read: Afghanistan Now Has Drug Cartels

Finally, add to the murky issue of just whom the U.S. is fighting the current confusion over just who is running the corrupt, judicially challenged government the U.S. is defending.

This week, Afghan authorities expect to make a final decision on the disputed August presidential election: If they decide there was widespread fraud and the current President Hamid Karzai did not win by enough votes, they will announce a run-off between Karzai and his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah.

Meanwhile, the very public dispute between the head of the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and his deputy — as well as the delay in the issuance of a final U.N. report on the August elections — has brought to light the problem of fraud in the election and has the potential to undermine the Obama administration's military mission in Afghanistan, the Karzai government and the U.N. Mission.

Read: U.N. Reports "Widespread Fraud" in Afghan Vote

(AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
But that decision is murky as well, since the head of the U.N. Mission, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide (at left), sent his top deputy, diplomat Peter Galbraith, home and his position was then terminated by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The Secretary-General is distancing himself from both the firing of Galbraith and the election monitoring, making the point that the report is not yet complete and the truth will come out, and that the decision to fire Galbraith was not based on his political position but rather on "irreconcilable differences" between the head of the mission and his deputy.

"Fraud took place; no one can deny this," Michele Montas, spokesperson for Secretary-General Ban told CBS News. "But what is important is that the measures that were put in place to detect fraud have worked, and that the willingness and mechanisms to address the fraud are there."

On Sunday, Eide held a press conference to acknowledge widespread fraud and rejected Galbraith's allegations of a cover-up. Later that night, Galbraith seemed to indicate that a run-off is in the cards when he told CBS News, "Kai Eide belatedly recognized the electoral fraud that he had been downplaying for the last seven weeks. The U.N. now needs to show leadership and resolve to make sure the second round is better than the first."

If there is a run-off it will likely take place in late October or early November, but that's only if the harsh Afghan winter doesn't force a postponement until next spring.

So, to set it straight: We don't really know what the goals are, or who is running Afghanistan, but President Obama is mulling the options. This is confusing. These appear to me to be sort of fundamental questions.

Albert Einstein once said, "Science is wonderfully equipped to answer the question 'How?' but it gets terribly confused when you ask the question 'Why?'"

It seems U.S. policy in Afghanistan may be the same. The Obama administration is asking how, but the American public — and analysts — will get very confused if we begin to ask why. There may very well be a policy argument to make that American interests and security are tied up in the Afghan conflict. But the fundamental questions must be answered first.

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.