Hinting at the possibility of a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Obama announced recently that U.S. forces would shift into a strictly training and support role by the spring, leaving primary security responsibilities to the Afghan army.
Jim Lobe, last updated: January 12, 2013
Inter Press Service
President Barack Obama announced recently that U.S. forces will accelerate the transfer of primary security responsibilities to their Afghan counterparts and take on an exclusively support and training role beginning this spring.
The announcement, which came after several days of meetings between visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai and top U.S. officials here, suggested that Washington may draw down its remaining 66,000-troop force in Afghanistan more quickly than previously planned.
But he also stressed that the pace of such a drawdown will be decided after more consultation with his field commanders over the coming months.
“Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission: training, advising and assisting Afghan forces,” he said in a joint White House press conference with Karzai. “It will be a historic moment.”
Obama also implicitly admitted that the more-ambitious “national-building” counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy that he had advocated four years ago in hopes of improving governance and spurring economic development had fallen short.
“Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios?” he asked. “Probably not. This is a human enterprise, and you fall short of the ideal.”
But he insisted that Washington had achieved “our central goal” which he defined as shaping a “strong relationship with a responsible Afghan government that is willing to cooperate with us to make sure that it is not a launching pad for future attacks against the United States.”
He also stressed that Washington supports a reconciliation process between the Karzai government and the Taliban insurgency and the long-delayed opening of a Taliban office in Qatar to facilitate it.
While he insisted that such a process must be “Afghan led”, he also said Washington believed reconciliation would not be possible “without the Taliban renouncing terrorism” and recognising the existing constitution, including those provisions that protect the rights of women.
In meetings with representatives of the Karzai government in France last month, the Taliban delegates stressed that they were prepared to make compromises, including permitting, for example, girls and women to attend school, albeit in “an Islamic way.”
Analysts here and in the region, however, have said the movement remains deeply split between hard-line and more moderate factions.
While Obama’s remarks left many key questions unanswered – notably how many, if any, and under what conditions U.S. forces may remain in Afghanistan after the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of all NATO combat forces – they made clear that his main focus was to prevent Al-Qaeda and its affiliates from regaining a safe haven in the country from which they had launched the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
In that respect, he further signaled his adoption of a so-called counter-terrorist (CT) strategy that had been urged on him most forcefully by Vice President Joe Biden four years ago.
At the time, however, Biden lost the argument to more hawkish officials, notably Pentagon chief Robert Gates, CentCom commander Gen. David Petraeus, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who advocated a COIN strategy which resulted in the tripling of the number of U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan over the following two years to a total of about 100,000.
They, in turn, were supplemented by another 35,000 troops, drawn primarily from Washington’s NATO allies.
While the strategy worked in some respects – U.S. forces successfully evicted the Taliban from some regions in the south and east where the group’s presence had been pervasive – the Karzai government’s legendary corruption and its failure to effectively address the needs of the affected populations worked against success.
As the civilian-led part of the strategy lagged, commanders relied increasingly on its military aspects, including drone strikes and the hated “night raids” aimed at capturing or killing mid-level Taliban officials. These tactics increasingly alienated the population they were supposed to protect and forced Karzai himself to publicly denounce Washington’s conduct of the war.
Meanwhile, a war-weary public back home – like public opinion in the NATO allies – turned increasingly against the war, with growing majorities here calling for withdrawal “as soon as possible”. At the end of November, 62 senators, including more than a dozen Republicans, voted for a “sense of Congress” resolution calling for an “accelerated transition of United States combat and military and security operations to the Government of Afghanistan.”
Karzai’s occasional anti-U.S. outbursts, as well as the growing number of fatal “green-on-blue” attacks by Afghan forces against their U.S. and NATO counterparts over the past 18 months, further soured the public on a war that has lasted longer than any other in U.S. history, cost an estimated 1.3 trillion dollars, and so far taken the lives of nearly 2,200 U.S. military personnel.
With Gates and Petraeus now departed and Clinton on the way out, Obama appears to be surrounding himself with people who are much more closely aligned with Biden’s thinking. His nominees for secretaries of state and defence, Sen. John Kerry, and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, respectively, are both highly-decorated Vietnam veterans highly sceptical of COIN strategy.
Still, the results of this week’s meetings with Karzai are likely to provoke a lot of criticism, especially from neo-conservatives and other hawks (including from Democratic Party-aligned groups like the Center for a New American Security).
Critics will undoubtedly point out that, while the Afghan Army already has the lead in securing 80 percent of the country’s population, only one of the Army’s 23 brigades, according to a Pentagon report released last month, is able to operate independently without air or other military, including combat support from the U.S. or its NATO allies.
The Army also depends heavily on allied intelligence and logistical support. That reliance is not likely to change substantially when the Army takes the lead in securing all of Afghanistan by the end-of-spring deadline set out by Obama.
As noted by Obama himself, the Army’s leadership “doesn’t mean that coalition forces, including U.S. forces, are no longer fighting. They will still be fighting alongside Afghan troops,” he said.
But the bigger question is how quickly Obama intends to draw down the remaining U.S. forces, and he stressed that will depend in part on the advice he gets from his military commanders led by Gen. John Allen.
They reportedly want to maintain as many troops in the field as possible through at least the next fighting season, which will end next fall, but Biden and others are pressing for a faster drawdown.
The other big question is how many troops Washington hopes to keep in Afghanistan after 2014. Allen has publicly said he needs a force of at least 6,000 and as many as 20,000 to carry out counter-terrorist operations and provide adequate support and training to the Afghan Army. But the White House in recent days has suggested that 3,000 may be sufficient.
In advance of Karzai’s visit this week, two senior White House officials told reporters that Washington was prepared to accept fewer yet or even none at all if Kabul did not sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would provide U.S. military personnel legal immunity from prosecution for any actions they carry out in Afghanistan – a demand Obama reiterated Friday.
Karzai appeared to accept that condition, noting that he intended to “argue for immunity for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a way that Afghan sovereignty will not be compromised” when he returned to Kabul.
Clifford May is president of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. A stringent hawk and Obama critic, May recently lambasted President Obama for his efforts to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute. He wrote: “At this point, it’s all but certain that Mr. Obama is prepared to accept a deal that will be dangerous for America and the West—and, yes, life-threatening for Israel.” May then made the outlandish claim that Shia Iran could give a nuclear weapon to the avowedly anti-Shia al-Qaeda, writing: “[I]n addition to worrying that Iran’s rulers will use nuclear weapons or give them to Hezbollah, their proxy, there is now reason to believe they might provide a bomb to al Qaeda.”
Sen. Ted Cruz is a Tea Party Republican senator from Texas who recently announced his candidacy for the 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination. A right-wing hawk on foreign affairs, Cruz has worked to sabotage negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. He was one of 47 senators to sign a controversial letter to Iran that he says was intended to “stop a bad deal,” wildly claiming that the P5+1 thinks it is “perfectly acceptable” for Iran to have nuclear weapons.
The Philos Project is a Christian advocacy organization that promotes hawkish U.S. policies towards the Middle East. Backed by right-wing “pro-Israel” donors like Paul Singer, the group has called for the use of U.S. ground troops against ISIS, has strongly defended Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and has criticized efforts to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute. Wrote one critic: “The Philos Project stands as an object lesson in the eagerness with which neoconservatives try to create the perception that their views are shared by a vast, diverse constituency, which in this case is warning Christians about the imperial designs of Iran and the dangers of a nuclear deal between it and the P5+1.”
Bill Kristol has been a strong supporter of the Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), the freshman senator who was behind the controversial letter Iran’s leaders that was signed by 47 Republican senators. Kristol’s Weekly Standard has been a vocal champion of Cotton’s work and his Emergency Committee for Israel paid out more than a million dollars in political advertising supportive of Cotton's 2014 Senate run. Kristol sees “a kindred spirit in Cotton's aggressive national-security hawkishness,” reported The Atlantic, “and the men developed what Kristol describes as 'a bond beyond pure policy.”
Tom Cotton, the freshman Senator from Arkansas who seized the spotlight recently when he orchestrated the controversial open letter to Iran that was singed by himself and 46 of his Republican colleagues, appears to be a protégé of neoconservative ringleader Bill Kristol and a favorite of rightwing “pro-Israel” megadonors Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer. His rhetoric and policy views track closely with those of his benefactors. “You may be tired of war, but war is not tired of you,” he once told the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin in 2012.
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