Inside story of how Washington is losing its bottle

IN NEW York the mood is buoyant as the American economy continues to purr at a satisfying rate, but 250 miles to the south in Washington DC there is increasing private gloom among those in the know that events in Afghanistan and Iraq are going badly wrong – and growing despair about what to do about it.

President Bush’s bold Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad gave US troops a much-needed fillip and he said all the right things. But behind the scenes the war on terror is going badly wrong in its two main theatres. “In both places it is worse than you think,” I was warned before arriving in the US capital for a series of off-the-record briefings. The warning was accurate.

Take Afghanistan first. You don’t read or see much about it these days. The reality is grim. The Taliban is resurgent; al-Qaeda is there too, but not as relevant as it was. Attacks on aid workers are soaring; many are refusing to leave the urban areas. The warlords are back in control of the countryside, where opium production is already above pre-invasion levels. “Afghanistan is a narco-economy once more,” said one intelligence analyst.

The Taliban regularly mounts attacks in the rural areas and is expected to hit urban centres with greater force. “If they knew how weak we were,” confided one intelligence source, “they would have done it already.” Coalition forces are confined to Vietnam-style strategic hamlets from which they emerge for operations only in great force, before returning to their enclaves. Hamid Karzai’s grip on power is tenuous..

Last week the Los Angeles Times reported on its front page that loads of recruits are quitting the fledgling Afghan army because of pitiful pay. The US won’t provide figures, but an Afghan officer said: “We have roughly 6,000 trained soldiers, out of whom no less than 2,000 have left.” The US says it plans to have 70,000 soldiers in the force; nobody has any idea from whence they will come.

Yet despite the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, a huge amount of US military assets have been shifted to Iraq. The Germans now make up the biggest part of the coalition forces along with various other European contingents. Washington fears they will not stay for long when casualties start to mount. “The prognosis for Afghanistan is miserable,” was how one US intelligence source concluded his briefing.

It is not much better for Iraq. There are now an average of 130 attacks a day on coalition (mainly American) forces; almost 100 coalition troops have been killed in November, the grimmest month so far. “We only have a third of the forces we need to fight the insurgents,” one former US diplomat told me. The intelligence is threadbare too: US commanders have no real idea who they are up against, except that they are well-organised remnants of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime, supplemented with some al-Qaeda-type Islamo-fascists. “We still don’t really know who is behind the attacks,” I was told. “So we just go around kicking doors in – which is exactly what the enemy wants us to do.”

The US forces might lack purpose or direction but there are plenty of both to the insurgents’ attacks. The UN was specifically targeted; it is now effectively gone from Iraq. Next were the various non-government organisations trying to assist in building a better Iraq; they, including the Red Cross, have also headed for the exit. Then it was the turn of what few allies America has in Iraq, specifically the Italians. Those most at risk now are Iraqis co-operating with the US. Last week a US commander reported a slackening of attacks on his own troops because the insurgents were concentrating on assassinating those they see as quislings.

Now it is the Americans themselves who seem to be in a rush for the exit. On September 22 Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, attacked France for suggesting a speedier transfer of power to Iraqis. Yet since President Bush summoned Paul Bremer, his Iraqi governor general, to the White House, that is exactly what is happening. Bush wants a substantial withdrawal of US forces before next November’s elections. Former Pentagon favourite, Ahmad Chalabi, is dismayed: “The whole thing [the speedier transfer of power] was set up so President Bush could come to the airport in October [2004] for a ceremony to congratulate the new Iraqi government.”

The consequences on the ground are apparent. Until recently, US forces took 12 weeks to train Iraqis for the new police force; that has been speeded up to one week. No proper checks on individuals are being done, so trainees have been infiltrated with insurgent spies. US intelligence officers were horrified to discover recently that the insurgents even had details of Bremer’s schedule.

Bush is fond of saying that America did not spend so much in men and materiel to liberate 25 million Iraqis only to succumb to a ragbag of insurgents. Yet it looks as if that is exactly what is happening. The insurgents have noted that a few very big bombs have already forced Washington to speed up its exit strategy; that can only result in even bigger bombs.

No wonder the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration are in retreat: their policy of replacing Middle East tyrants with democracy and functioning economies is in grave danger of falling at the first hurdle, largely from lack if American willpower. The consequences of defeat and retreat, of course, are so grave that I cannot believe any US president can contemplate it for long; but what exactly Bush plans to do about it is a mystery which nobody I met in Washington was able to resolve.