Although President Obama signed orders to deploy 17,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, including 8,000 Marines, his thinking on the Afghan war has changed significantly.
It's no longer the gung-ho view of a surge-type operation routing al-Qaida's terrorists. The reinforcements also fall shy of the 30,000 troops requested by Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The 30,000 would have doubled the U.S. force levels in a country of 35 million the size of France. Juggling troop requirements between two wars leaves one theater short-changed.
"Even with these additional forces," McKiernan warned, "I have to tell you that 2009 is going to be a tough year."
Al-Qaida is in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, those seven tribal agencies under Pakistani sovereignty on the Afghan border, not in Afghanistan. But the more the United States keeps bombing al-Qaida's safe havens in the tribal areas with remote-controlled, unmanned Predators, the more civilians get killed, and the more the Taliban's politico-religious fanatics boost their stock in Pakistan proper.
Obama faced his first foreign hurdle on open-ended North Atlantic Treaty Organization commitments in Afghanistan Thursday when he made his first foreign visit to Canada. The Canadian Parliament had voted to pull out its 2,800 troops by 2011, and both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon made it clear that only another vote in a hostile Parliament could change that.
The only other two nations authorized to fight in Afghanistan — Britain and the Netherlands — are also under parliamentary pressure to wrap up their kinetic contributions by the end of 2011. CENTCOM commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, believes the Brits will stick it out with the United States as long as it takes. Prime Minister Gordon Brown's entourage does not share Petraeus' confidence.
Obama also is asking the other NATO allies with kinetically impaired troops, whose parliaments voted to keep them out of harm's way, to contribute more soldiers. France, Germany, and Spain have declined. Italy, under conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi, has agreed to boost its Afghan contingent from 2,300 troops to 2,800. They are based near Herat, close to the Iranian border, and will be allowed to open fire against the Taliban only if the Group of Eight summit in July agrees. Not exactly an Italian call to action.
Obama's main Afghan concern now is to avoid going into negotiations with "moderate" Taliban elements from a position of weakness. During an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. before his one-day visit to Ottawa, Obama indicated a shift in his Afghan strategy when he made clear diplomacy will now play a bigger role in U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
"I am absolutely convinced," the president explained, "that you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism in that region, solely through military means . . . We're going to have to use diplomacy. We're going to have to use development."
An immediate worry is the ability to defend Kabul, the Afghan capital, with NATO troops who are not authorized to fight. The first 3,000 U.S. reinforcements will be deployed around the city to thwart the Taliban's plans to stage a Tet-type offensive, which was when Viet Cong guerrillas infiltrated major Vietnamese cities in 1968. Even though defeated, the Viet Cong scored a major psychological victory that demoralized America's home front.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai keeps complaining about U.S. troops he says are turning the population against them by breaking into homes looking for Taliban guns and ammo, and killing any civilian who resists.
"They will get plenty of flowers and gratitude when we send them safely back home," Karzai said sarcastically.
After reading up on Afghan briefing papers, Obama concluded that Defense Secretary Robert Gates was only partly correct when he said, "There needs to be a three- to five-year plan for re-establishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after al-Qaida, preventing the establishment of terrorism, better performance in terms of delivery of services to the people."
This tends to commingle the Taliban and al-Qaida. For Obama, they are two separate entities, and the split should be encouraged.
When talks take place, negotiations will be with the Taliban, not with al-Qaida. As for the $32 billion in U.S. economic aid to rebuild the country, there still are major cities with only two hours of electricity a day. But there are still powerful elements, both civilian and military, adamantly opposed to negotiations. They say we should be prepared to stick it out another 10 years if necessary.
But are the American people willing to go along? And doesn't the current financial and economic upheaval put a bit of a crimp on grandiloquent expressions of open-ended bravura? The next big debate will be about Taliban "reconcilables."
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