U.S. Army soldiers walk toward a motor pool Wednesday at Forward Operating Base Airborne in Wardak province, Afghanistan. President Obama ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to the war in Afghanistan, nearly tripling the force he inherited as commander in chief.
U.S. Army soldiers walk toward a motor pool Wednesday at Forward Operating Base Airborne in Wardak province, Afghanistan. President Obama ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to the war in Afghanistan, nearly tripling the force he inherited as commander in chief. Dario Lopez-Mills/AP
In his new Afghanistan strategy, President Obama is counting on an accelerated 18-month surge to reverse the Taliban's momentum and make a dent in the spiraling violence.
The most visible portion of the new effort will be the 30,000 additional U.S. troops that will start flowing into Afghanistan in the next few weeks.
But many military experts remain skeptical that the extra soldiers will be enough to change the fundamental dynamics, particularly if Obama sticks to his new July 2011 target for beginning a drawdown.
The new deadline is emerging as the most controversial part of Obama's strategy. The president said the timeframe is aimed at creating a sense of urgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan to act more aggressively.
But critics worry that it sends the wrong signal to the Taliban and al-Qaida, and to U.S. allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Setting a date could allow insurgents to bide their time and take up their offensive after U.S. troops leave.
"Anyone who knows Afghanistan says you might be able to make the beginning of a difference there, but once you start telling people you're out of there, it's going to affect people's behavior," says Eliot Cohen, the director of the strategic studies program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "That actually incentivizes bad behavior. If you think the Americans are headed out of there, the obvious thing to do is do things in the old Afghan way."
Not Locked Into Leaving
Senior Obama administration officials insist that the pace of withdrawal will be determined by conditions on the ground.
"I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a Senate committee hearing Wednesday. "But what we have done ... is to signal very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan."
The plan is designed so that the lead responsibility for security will be handed over gradually to Afghans on a local basis, depending on the quality and reliability of security forces and government institutions.
"In my own mind, July 2011 is a reasonably well-set timeline to get the Afghans to a point where at least in some portions of Afghanistan, we can start withdrawing," retired Lt. Gen James Dubik, who oversaw training of Iraqi forces in 2007 and 2008 and spent the past summer observing training of Afghan troops, told NPR's All Things Considered.
But given that U.S. forces have spent the past eight years trying to build up the Afghan army, police and government ministries, there is deep skepticism about how much of a difference another 18 months can make, even with an additional influx of resources.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama addresses the nation on Afghanistan on Tuesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
President Obama addresses the nation on Afghanistan on Tuesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
"I have no doubt that with 30,000 troops, Gen. McChrystal can put the Taliban on their back foot in 18 months, but those gains will not be sustainable," says Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan who worked extensively on issues in Afghanistan. "At best, you will make marginal progress in the next 18 months at building up the Afghan national army. That will be a very long project."
The U.S. military plans to accelerate its training efforts by requiring all U.S. combat soldiers to actively partner with Afghan forces in a training capacity.
Senior administration officials say that there are currently 92,000 capable Afghan national army forces, but that too many of them remain garrisoned on bases rather than actively protecting the Afghan people.
McChrystal has said privately that Afghan security forces need to eventually number 400,000 if they are going to be able to secure the entire country. That would include about 260,000 army soldiers and another 140,000 police officers.
Objectives Too Small?
"One of the mistakes the Bush administration made, and I hope we will not make it again, is to set our objectives too small for Afghan security forces," says Cohen, who served as counselor to the State Department for the last two years of the Bush administration. "If you want your real ticket to withdrawal for American combat forces, it's going to be the effective development of Afghan security forces, which will probably have to be paid for by the international community for decades to come. But that's worth it."
Obama's review, however, shied away from endorsing any specific target, with aides saying they prefer to set year-by-year targets that are more achievable. "We are going to take this in bite-size chunks," a senior administration official told reporters.
But there are persistent doubts about whether the training of effective forces can be sped up all that much.
"If push comes to shove, we may be able to recruit enough people on this advanced timeline that you can give them uniforms and boots, and teach them to stand in a straight line, but that's about it," Grenier says. "I'm not even sure they can recruit in sufficient numbers to meet this advanced timeline."
Grenier says the U.S. needs to work more actively with local security forces and tribal militias.
Relying On The Afghans
Until now, Washington has been reluctant to arm and train local militias because officials don't want to undercut the national government in Kabul and further empower local warlords.
In his speech Tuesday night at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Obama did not make any specific reference to local militias. But officials suggested that the administration is open to broader grass-roots security efforts as long as they are somehow tied into government institutions.
"The key here is community security organizations that are willing to work with the government in Kabul and that do not become the militias for warlords," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress on Wednesday.
But details remain scarce. And some Afghan experts warn that arming militias could end up fueling more of the internecine conflicts that wracked the country for much of the 1980s and 1990s.
"The risk is that we could lose control because we are arming local groups and we know the Afghan army will be weakened by these groups," says Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "You will have many groups that are more or less criminal. That could have a short-term result against the Taliban, but it could end up destroying the state in Afghanistan."
In his speech, Obama laid out three broad underpinnings of his strategy. The first is the military push to "break the Taliban's momentum." That includes the surge of 30,000 troops, which will be focused in the troubled southern and eastern regions of the country.
The increase will bring the total number of U.S. troops up to nearly 100,000 by next summer. In addition, some 39,000 NATO and international soldiers are there, and NATO officials expect new commitments of 5,000 additional troops, most of which would be deployed in northern Afghanistan.
They will have their work cut out for them. The Taliban have now achieved a "dominant influence" in 11 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. He also said insurgent attacks this past summer were 60 percent higher than in the same period in 2008.
The second portion is the civilian effort to build up the Afghan government, which has been plagued by corruption and incompetence.
By focusing U.S. aid on areas like agriculture and anti-corruption efforts, Washington hopes to reward the best-run ministries and push out the most corrupt officials. But that will require Afghan President Hamid Karzai to uphold his commitment to clean up his government and fight corruption.
Problems In Pakistan
The third plank involves neighboring Pakistan, which is where al-Qaida still maintains a safe haven and where the limits of U.S. power are felt most clearly.
In public, Obama offered few details on any new initiatives involving Pakistan, other than to offer a long-term partnership. He also praised Pakistan for its recent more aggressive campaigns against extremists inside its borders.
But privately, Obama administration officials were much tougher on Pakistan.
"We are very serious about Pakistan changing its strategic calculus," says a senior administration official. "We want them to realize that association with these extremist groups is not a hedge that is in their long-term interests."
Still, U.S. troops cannot operate openly in Pakistan, meaning U.S. influence is felt most strongly with the controversial strikes by unmanned aircraft targeting extremist hideouts in remote tribal areas.
Obama's strategy does reportedly involve boosting U.S. covert operations in Pakistan, as well as its intelligence sharing with Pakistan's government.
"We have pretty much eliminated al-Qaida from Afghanistan. Obviously we don't want them to come back. The next [step] is to help the Pakistanis get rid of them on their side of the border," James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, told NPR's Morning Edition.
But some experts worry that the new July 2011 deadline could make Pakistan reluctant to boost its cooperation significantly.
"I think they are very skeptical of a surge, particularly a short-term surge," Grenier says. "They think it will only push fighters across the border into Pakistan."