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Obama Weighs Options as Afghan War Enters Ninth Year

Inter Press Service

On the eighth anniversary of the launch of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama spent a good part of Wednesday deliberating with his top advisers on what is likely to be one of the most momentous decisions of his tenure: the future of U.S. involvement in that war.

His military commanders on the ground, led by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the head of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), Gen. David Petraeus, are reportedly urging Obama to increase the number of troops deployed to Afghanistan from the current 68,000 to over 100,000 as part of a comprehensive “counterinsurgency” (COIN) strategy.

They and their supporters, both within and outside the administration, have been arguing for weeks that the Taliban’s resurgence can only be defeated by a major infusion of U.S. combat troops and the implementation of a new strategy focused on securing the population and providing it with essential services.

But some of Obama’s civilian advisers, notably led by Vice President Joseph Biden, are urging a less ambitious “counterterrorism” (CT) strategy that would maintain U.S. troop strength at current levels while stepping up Predator strikes and Special Forces operations targeted at key Taliban leaders and their al Qaeda allies both in Afghanistan and in their safe havens in neighbouring Pakistan.

The CT advocates argue that increasing the number of U.S. troops could have a counterproductive impact on public opinion in Afghanistan, especially among Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group, from which the Taliban recruits its foot soldiers. The U.S. military mission in Afghanistan should increasingly be devoted to training and building the country’s national army and police force, in their view.

They also argue that the billions of dollars required to finance a major U.S. troop build-up could be put to more effective use in persuading nuclear-armed Pakistan, and particularly its powerful army, to cooperate more closely with Washington’s CT efforts and to act more aggressively against its own Taliban insurgency, which is believed to harbour top al Qaeda figures.

Apart from ruling out any substantial drawdown in U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan – which he did during a meeting with senior Democratic and Republican lawmakers Tuesday – Obama has not yet tipped his hand.

His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and Obama’s Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”), Richard Holbrooke, are believed to lean somewhat more in favour of the COIN strategy, while Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who many analysts believe could turn out to be the single most influential voice in the debate, has characteristically kept his cards very close to his chest.

At the same time, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a former congressman who is particularly sensitive to growing Democratic concern on Capitol Hill that Afghanistan could turn into a Vietnam-like quagmire, is reportedly leaning toward Biden’s view, as is Obama’s increasingly influential deputy national security adviser, Thomas Donilon. Donilon’s boss, Gen. Jim Jones, has reportedly acted primarily as an honest broker.

Republicans, led by their failed presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, have strongly backed McChrystal, whose bleak analysis of the current situation in Afghanistan and recommendation for a major troop increase, was leaked to the Washington Post last month. Since then, McCain and other hawks have repeatedly pressed Obama to urgently grant whatever the military formally requests. “Time is not on our side,” he reportedly told Obama during Tuesday’s meeting.

With some exceptions, the Democratic leadership in Congress is much more wary and has become increasingly vocal in their scepticism about the COIN approach since the leak, which many Democratic lawmakers saw as an attempt by McChrystal and Petraeus to force Obama to accept their recommendation.

The public case against the new COIN approach has also been bolstered as details have emerged about the widespread fraud committed on behalf of Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the Aug. 20 elections. Karzai, whose government was already seen as increasingly corrupt before the poll, is now being depicted as an unreliable partner for the kind of comprehensive strategy envisaged by COIN advocates.

“(O)ne assumption of the proposed counterinsurgency plan is that our troops and civilians will be working in partnership with a legitimate and reliable government in Afghanistan,” wrote Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in the Wall Street Journal last week.

“After the deeply flawed presidential election last month, we must ask whether we can succeed if our partner is weak and viewed with deep suspicion by his own people,” he noted.

Even some Democratic hawks, such as Michael O’Hanlon, a military-affairs expert at the Brookings Institution who served in the White House under Bill Clinton but subsequently supported key decisions by George W. Bush during his so-called “global war on terror”, have cited the current Afghan government under Karzai as a valid reason for scepticism.

“If there’s any one lesson from Vietnam we should remember, it’s that we need a viable indigenous partner,” he warned during a recent talk sponsored by the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neo-conservative group that strongly supports a major escalation. “We can do everything right, and if our partner doesn’t do its part, we’re not going to succeed.”

But the COIN advocates insist that Washington has no choice because, as they ritually note, Obama himself called the Afghan war a “war of necessity”, rather than one of choice.

In an updated version of the Vietnam-era “domino theory”, they argue that Washington cannot afford to permit the Taliban, which they see as inextricably tied to al Qaeda, to return to power or even gain sway over substantial portions of Afghanistan where they could provide al Qaeda safe haven, because the consequences would be regional, if not global.

“A Taliban conquest of Afghanistan would endanger the Pakistani regime at best, create a regional crisis for certain and lead to a nuclear-armed al Qaeda at worst,” according to David Brooks, an influential neo-conservative columnist at the New York Times.

For their part, CT advocates do not see the Taliban as a monolithic force forever linked to al Qaeda. They also point to major successes in recent missile attacks against key al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban operatives inside Pakistan as strong evidence that Washington can effectively disrupt and ultimately defeat al Qaeda without putting more of its own troops on the ground.

With Congress and his own advisers so deeply divided, most analysts here believe that Obama will try to reconcile the two strategies by adopting elements of both, including an increase in the number of troops, but not so many as the 40,000 that McChrystal and Petraeus reportedly want. That would be consistent with his decision last March to approve the deployment of an additional 17,000 combat troops to Afghanistan out of the 30,000 requested by the military brass.

But both COIN and CT advocates agree that such an approach will likely lead to serious political problems, not so different from those confronted by Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War.

“Half-measures is what I worry about,” McCain said after Tuesday’s meeting. “[They can] lead to failure over time and an erosion of American public support.”

“It’s the worst of a set of bad options,” wrote Stephen Walt, a prominent international relations scholar at Harvard University, on his blog at foreignpolicy.com.

“If things eventually go south (as I believe they will), he’ll get blamed for not giving the commanders enough to do the job and for incurring additional costs to no good purpose. Yet this approach also means he won’t the credit for taking a bold decision to cut our losses and get out,” Walt wrote.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/).

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