Even as U.S. President Barack Obama prepares
to deploy more military forces to Afghanistan what he has called "the
central front" in former President George W. Bush's "global war on
terror" a consensus on overall U.S. strategy there remains elusive.
Even Washington's precise war aims in Afghanistan more than seven years after
U.S.-backed forces chased the Taliban out of the country appear subject to
continuing debate, as, in the face of what virtually all analysts and officials
concede is a deteriorating situation, the Pentagon is actively downgrading
the Bush administration's hopes of ushering in a thriving democracy to something
far less ambitious.
That was made abundantly clear last week when Defense Secretary Robert Gates
warned Congress "to be very careful about the nature of the goals we set
for ourselves in Afghanistan. If we set ourselves the objective of creating
some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose, because nobody
in the world has that kind of time, patience, and money," he told the
Senate Armed Services Committee.
And while Gates insisted that Washington faces a "long slog" to
achieve even its minimal aims, fears that Afghanistan could become a "new
Vietnam," a deadly quagmire in which already overstretched U.S. forces
could become bogged down in an unwinnable war, have gained sudden new currency
in the mass media.
Indeed, the cover story in the latest edition of Newsweek magazine
is headlined, "Obama's Vietnam:
The analogy isn't exact. But the war in Afghanistan is starting to look disturbingly
Public statements about the current situation by senior Pentagon officials,
including Gates, have been grim. A Pentagon report released Monday noted that
last spring and summer saw the "highest levels of violence" since
the U.S. intervention in 2001, and that 132 U.S. troops were killed last year,
up from 82 in 2007.
"You all have been covering recent events in Afghanistan long enough
to know that the situation there grows increasingly perilous every day,"
the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, told foreign
reporters at the top of a special briefing last week.
"Suicide and IED [improvised explosive device] attacks are up, some say
as much as 40 percent over the last year," he went on. "The Taliban
grows bolder implanting fear and intimidating the Afghan people, and the flow
of militants across the border with Pakistan continues."
The U.S. has about 33,000 U.S. troops currently deployed to Afghanistan. These
are augmented by another 30,000 troops from other NATO countries, of which,
however, only British, Canadian, and Dutch contingents are fully cleared for
combat in largely Pashtun areas in the east and south where the Taliban and
its allies are strongest.
Commanders in the field, led by U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, have requested
an additional 30,000 U.S. troops over the next six to nine months, a figure
that Mullen echoed during last week's press briefing.
Gates has taken a more cautious approach, telling senators last week that
10,000 to 12,000 troops or the two to three brigades that Obama said
were necessary during his presidential campaign are likely to be deployed
over the next six months. At the same time, he said he would be "deeply
skeptical" of further increases, adding that Washington expected the Afghan
military (currently about 100,000 troops) and police to take a stronger role.
The new administration is also hoping that other NATO members, which were
repeatedly pressed by the Bush administration for more support, will provide
more troops for both combat and accelerated training of Afghan forces.
Obama is sending a high-powered delegation led by Vice President Joe Biden;
Obama's national security adviser, Gen. James Jones; and his special representative
to Afghanistan and Pakistan, former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, to Munich
next week in the first of a series of international meetings culminating in
NATO's 60th anniversary summit in April in Strasbourg where he hopes to secure
But, despite all the goodwill generated abroad by Obama's election, public
opinion both in Canada and Europe is running strongly against new deployments,
according to recent surveys there, and analysts warn that Washington is
likely to be disappointed by the response.
Meanwhile, Holbrooke, working with the chief of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM),
Gen. David Petraeus, as well as Washington's new ambassador-designate to Kabul,
retired Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who has served two tours of duty in Afghanistan,
will take part in a comprehensive review of U.S. strategy that is unlikely
to be concluded before April.
The review is aimed at both defining U.S. short- and long-term goals in Afghanistan
and elaborating a strategy to achieve them.
The one goal on which virtually all policy-makers and analysts are agreed
is that expressed by Gates during last week's hearing: "To prevent Afghanistan
from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United
States and its allies."
But how to achieve even that minimal goal given obvious constraints on resources
and the secure bases that the Taliban continue to enjoy in Pakistan's frontier
areas remains the subject of considerable debate.
The dominant view for now is that increasing security for the civilian population,
particularly in the Pashtun areas where the Taliban is strongest much as
the U.S. "surge" of 30,000 additional U.S. troops purportedly accomplished
in Iraq is essential. Success should deprive the Taliban of much of its popular
support and persuade "reconcilable" leaders to negotiate with the
government and reduce the level of violence.
In addition, pressure on President Hamid Karzai to address the corruption
that has become endemic under his administration and renewed efforts to persuade
in part through significantly enhanced training the Pakistani
military to conduct an effective counter-insurgency campaign against its homegrown
Taliban in the frontier areas, as well as the al-Qaeda leadership that is based
there, are also seen as indispensable.
But critics, of which there are a growing number, are skeptical. Among other
things, they question comparisons between Iraq and Afghanistan, noting, among
other things, that, even if 30,000 troops are added to the existing deployment
in Afghanistan, the ratio of troops both foreign and indigenous
to people will remain substantially below the ratio in Iraq, and far below
the ratio recommended by conventional counter-insurgency doctrine.
There is also disagreement even within the military itself over
how best to deploy those troops: whether close to the rugged Pakistan border
to try to block supply and infiltration routes; or in cities, towns, and villages
to provide "security" to the population, as the surge purportedly
did in Iraq.
In a new
report [.pdf] released Tuesday by the Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace, Gilles Dorronsoro, a French expert on South Asia, argued that adding
troops would actually be counterproductive, because the mere presence of foreign
soldiers in Pashtun areas has fueled the Taliban's resurgence, and that the
best way to weaken it is to reduce military confrontations. In that respect,
"the only meaningful way to halt the insurgency's momentum is to start
Indeed, Dorronsoro argues, as do other critics, that most effective way to
ensure that Afghan territory is not used as a base to attack the U.S. is to
"de-link" the Taliban from al-Qaeda, "which is based mostly
"We will be in a much better position to fight al-Qaeda if we don't have
to fight the Afghans," he said. "We have to stop fighting the Taliban
because it is the wrong enemy."
(Inter Press Service)