WASHINGTON - Even as United States 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 US strategy there remains elusive.
Even Washington's precise war aims in Afghanistan more than seven years after
US-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
administration's hopes of ushering in a thriving democracy to something far
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
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 US 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 familiar."
Public statements about the current situation by senior Pentagon officials,
including Gates, have been grim. A Pentagon report released on Monday noted
that last spring and summer saw the "highest levels of violence" since the US
intervention in 2001, and that 132 US troops were killed last year, up from 82
"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, Admiral Michael Mullen, told foreign reporters at
the top of a special briefing here last week.
"Suicide and IED [improvised explosive device] attacks are up, some say as much
as 40% 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 US has about 33,000 US 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 US General David McKiernan, have requested an
additional 30,000 US 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 North Atlantic Treaty (NATO)
members, which were repeatedly pressed by the Bush administration for more
support, will provide more troops - for both combat and accelerated training of
Obama is sending a high-powered delegation led by Vice President Joe Biden;
Obama's national security adviser, General 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 new commitments.
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 here warn that Washington is
likely to be disappointed by the response.
Meanwhile, Holbrooke, working with the chief of the US Central Command
(Centcom), General David Petraeus, as well as Washington's new
ambassador-designate to Kabul, retired General Karl Eikenberry, who has served
two tours of duty in Afghanistan, will take part in a comprehensive review of
US strategy that is unlikely to be concluded before April.
The review is aimed at both defining US 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 are strongest -
much as the US "surge" of 30,000 additional US 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 Afghan 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 released on Tuesday by the Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace, Gilles Dorronsoro, a French expert on South Asia, argued that adding
troops would actually be counter-productive 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 US is to
"delink" the Taliban from al-Qaeda, "which is based mostly in Pakistan".
"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."
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.