Obama’s war

President Obama has decided to increase the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by roughly 17,000 troops over the next few months. The increase will begin with an initial deployment of 8,000 Marines in the next few weeks, to be followed by subsequent deployments of an Army brigade of 4,000 troops and about 5,000 support troops ...

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Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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GANDALABOG, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 18: U.S Army soldiers with the 1-6 Field Artillery division patrol an area where there has been reported Taliban presence February 18, 2009 in Gandalabog, Afghanistan. President Obama has committed an additional 17,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan, adding to the 36,000 currently there. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

President Obama has decided to increase the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by roughly 17,000 troops over the next few months. The increase will begin with an initial deployment of 8,000 Marines in the next few weeks, to be followed by subsequent deployments of an Army brigade of 4,000 troops and about 5,000 support troops next summer.

This is a fateful decision. Yes, I know; he promised that he would do this during the campaign, but ignoring campaign promises is a time-honored tradition and I can't help feeling like this was one issue where a rethink was called for. Instead of being just another one of George Bush's mishandled legacies, Afghanistan will now become Obama's war. If increasing U.S. forces doesn't work, he will face pressure to do still more, and he will incur the political costs of any subsequent failure.

President Obama has decided to increase the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by roughly 17,000 troops over the next few months. The increase will begin with an initial deployment of 8,000 Marines in the next few weeks, to be followed by subsequent deployments of an Army brigade of 4,000 troops and about 5,000 support troops next summer.

This is a fateful decision. Yes, I know; he promised that he would do this during the campaign, but ignoring campaign promises is a time-honored tradition and I can’t help feeling like this was one issue where a rethink was called for. Instead of being just another one of George Bush’s mishandled legacies, Afghanistan will now become Obama’s war. If increasing U.S. forces doesn’t work, he will face pressure to do still more, and he will incur the political costs of any subsequent failure.

As other commentators have noted, what’s missing in the announcement is a clear statement of U.S. strategy. To begin with, as William Pfaff notes here, it is not clear what our present goal is. Are we trying to bolster President Karzai, and do we still hope to build a stable democracy there? Is our real objective to defeat the Taliban once-and-for-all and eradicate poppy growing while we’re at it? Is the objective the long-term delegitimation of the central Asian strains of Islamic extremism, and the encouragement of more moderate forms of Islamic observance? Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already told Congress that we are not trying to create “some kind of Central Asian Valhalla” (which is both realistic and smart), but that still leaves a lot of other possibilities open.

In fact, we have only one vital national interest in Afghanistan: to prevent Afghan territory from being used as a safe haven for groups plotting attacks on American soil or on Americans abroad, as al Qaeda did prior to September 11. It might be nice to achieve some other goals too (such as economic development, better conditions for women, greater political participation, etc.), but these goals are neither vital to U.S. national security nor central to the future of freedom in the United States or elsewhere. Deep down, we don’t (or shouldn’t) care very much who governs in Afghanistan, provided they don’t let anti-American bad guys use their territory to attack us. As I recall, President Bush was even willing to let the Taliban stay in power in 2001 if they had been willing to hand us Osama and his henchmen.

Second, it is not clear what the additional troops are going to do once they get there. In Iraq, we faced a mostly urban-based insurgency, and the so-called “surge” focused primarily on stabilizing Baghdad. By contrast, the Taliban is a rural movement, and an additional 17,000 troops (or even 30,000), won’t be enough to provide reliable protection for the Afghan people. And as Juan Cole and Rory Stewart have warned, using U.S. and NATO troops to eradicate opium poppies or to engage in other forms of social engineering is likely to provoke a local backlash and make the Taliban even more popular.

Going forward, here are some critical things to watch:

1. Do the United States and its allies devote more resources to training the Afghan national army, and do these efforts succeed? If so, then we ought to follow the Iraq model and turn the country back to the Afghans as quickly as we can.

2. Is Obama able to persuade our NATO allies to increase their own efforts there, or will they mostly free-ride on Uncle Sam? (And watch out for token deployments intended to signal that the rest of NATO is with us on this one, but that have no real effect on the ground).

3. Can Obama (or more precisely, Richard Holbrooke) get Pakistan to do more to deny safe havens in Pakistan’s frontier areas? If not, more U.S. troops on one side of the border won’t have much effect. Does the recent ceasefire in the Swat Valley generate a backlash against the extremists who are imposing Shariah (as my FP colleague Thomas Ricks hopes), or do these groups continue to extend their sway? 

4. President Karzai is increasingly seen as the weak leader of one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. Was this new commitment of U.S. troops linked to specific changes in Karzai’s policies, or did we just do this on our own? My understanding is that the surge in Iraq also involved pressuring Prime Minister Maliki to crack down on both Shiite and Sunni militias (rather than just the latter), a decision that helped reduce violence and may even have enhanced his own legitimacy somewhat. Before we decided to up the ante in Afghanistan, did we get some a clear commitment to reform from Karzai, and do we think he has to backbone to pull it off? If not, we’re in trouble. Do the names Ngo Dinh Diem or Nguyen van Thieu ring any bells?

Given Central Asia’s potential to become the bottomless pit of American foreign and military policy, I hope Obama’s decision pays off. But it’s hard to have much confidence at this stage, until we know what the objective is and why he thinks adding more troops is going to get us there.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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