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US/Afghanistan - Obama troop plan analysis

Why more troops? Can they win?

by Tony Cross

Article published on the 2009-12-02 Latest update 2009-12-02 16:23 TU

Obama meets the troops before his announcement(Photo: Reuters)

Obama meets the troops before his announcement
(Photo: Reuters)

Reactions to President Barack Obama's plan to send 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan have varied from the Taliban's promise to kill them to Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen's promise to send 5,000 Europeans. What is behind the decision? And what are its chances of working?

The promised 30,000 is 10,000 short of the amount demanded by the American General in charge of the international force, Isaf, Stanley McChrystal. Nato's Rasmussen says that the Europeans will make up some or all of the difference but, so far, he is 8,900 short of a full complement.

If the Afghan operation is increasingly unpopular in the US, at least it was supposedly motivated by the 2001 attacks on American soil. European governments have no such emotive argument for their involvement and most are not keen to court the unpopularity that comes with bodybags.

But the pressure is reportedly on from Washington. Both France and Germany say they may decide to send more troops after next month's conference on Afghanistan in London.

Obama's decision, taken after months of deliberation, seems to have been dictated by domestic considerations more than concern for the future of Afghanistan.

The military top brass applied pressure for more resources, with McChrystal's wishlist somehow finding its way into the press.  No president is keen to antagonise them, especially a Democratic one who knows that General David Petraeus could be Republican candidate in the 2012 presidential election.

Obama has inherited two wars from the Bush adminstration and will be very lucky to reap any political good from either of them.

The supposed security threat to the US from Iraq is now widely considered to have been mythical. But Afghanistan and next-door Pakistan are still home to the Taliban and at least some elements of Al-Qaeda, probably its top leaders.

So Obama's opponents would have a field day if he quits AfPak without defeating them.

Afghanistan occupies an important strategic position, close to central Asian oil and gas supplies and next door to the US's increasingly important rival, China. So powerful interests in the US and Europe want to see, if not peace, at least as much stability as possible in the region.

On the other hand, the war is unpopular, particularly with Democrat voters. But, with total US deaths hitting 300 on Tuesday, losses are nowhere near the 58,000 in Vietnam and opposition to it is nowhere near as virulent.

Obama's proposal to begin winding down troop numbers in 2011 is clearly intended to answer fears that the eight-year operation will drag on indefinitely.

Afghan attitudes to the troop increase may not be quite what the West likes to believe. The government has already given a guarded welcome, while adding that it wants more cash and more pressure on Pakistan.

But, talking to students in Kabul last month, I found an ambivalent, if not contradictory, attitude to the foreign troop presence. Most did not want them to pull out now but they did not want them to stay much longer, either.

Some wanted the exact opposite of McChrystal's plan to concentrate on population centres with raids into rural areas. They argued that the presence of foreign troops in towns is an invitation for Taliban attacks, which claim victims among Afghans bystanders.

And many Afghans believe that the foreign troop presence, and particularly operations in which Afghan civilians are killed, help the Taliban to recruit.

The outline of an exit strategy relies on a number of very conditional factors.

Obama, who saw fit to call Afghan President Hamid Karzai after talking to French, British and German leaders, has told him that he must clamp down on corruption and build a legitimate government. Well, good luck with that!

As many as 15 former cabinet members are under investigation for embezzlement and seven key minstries are reported to have spent only 40 per cent of their funding.

Above all, the plan depends on constructing a viable Afghan army and police force, as European countries anxious to send trainers rather than combat troops point out.

That means training 100,000 new soldiers and 100,000 new police officers over the next three years.

After eight years of training programmes, the police are notoriously corrupt and the army reportedly suffers a 25 per cent desertion rate.

Last month's killing of five British soldiers by an Afghan police officer has raised concerns that rebel inflitration of the security forces means that sometimes the Taliban are receiving the benefits of the foreign training programmes.

Finally, everyone declares that military action alone will not solve the problem.

But, while aid programmes and NGOs abound, little progress is being made in fighting poverty, an important factor in helping the Taliban to recruit and surely the key to winning support for any government.

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