A new, uncertain trumpet
Arnaud de Borchgrave
Monday, February 23, 2009
While 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 Qaeda'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,
which would have doubled current U.S. force levels in a country of 35
million the size of France. Juggling troop requirements between two
wars leaves one theater shortchanged. "Even with these additional
forces," warned Gen. McKiernan, "I have to tell you that 2009 is going
to be a tough year."
Al Qaeda is in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), those
seven tribal agencies under Pakistani sovereignty on the Afghan
border, not in Afghanistan. But the more the United States keeps
bombing al Qaeda's safe havens in FATA by remote-controlled, unmanned
Predators, the more civilians get killed, and the more Taliban's
politico-religious fanatics boost their stock in Pakistan proper.
Mr. Obama faced his first foreign hurdle on open-ended NATO
commitments in Afghanistan when he made his first foreign visit to
Canada this week. But when the moment of truth arrived, he punted. "I
certainly did not press the prime minister on any additional
commitments beyond the ones that have already been made," he said
The Canadian Parliament had already voted to pull out its 2,800
troops by 2011, and both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign
Minister Lawrence Cannon made clear 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 British will
stick it out with the United States as long as it takes. Prime
Minister Gordon Brown's entourage does not share Gen. Petraeus'
President Obama is also 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 only be
allowed to open fire against Taliban if the G-8 summit of major
industrial nations next July, on the island of La Maddalena, between
Corsica and Sardinia, agrees. Not exactly an Italian call to action.
President Obama's main Afghan concern now is to avoid going into
negotiations with "moderate" Taliban elements from a position of
weakness. In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. prior
to his one-day visit to Ottawa, Mr. 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 that are not authorized to fight. The first
3,000 U.S. reinforcements will be deployed around the city to thwart
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.
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," Mr. Karzai opined sarcastically.
After reading up on Afghan briefing papers, Mr. Obama concluded
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 Qaeda, preventing establishment of terrorism, better
performance in terms of delivery of services to the people." This
tends to co-mingle Taliban and al Qaeda. For Mr. Obama, they are two
separate entities and the split should be encouraged.
When they take place, negotiations will be with Taliban, not with al
Qaeda. As for the $32 billion in U.S. economic aid to rebuild the
country, there are still major cities with only two hours of
electricity daily. But there are still powerful elements, both
civilian and military, adamantly opposed to negotiations. They say
that we should be prepared to stick it out another 10 years if
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 "reconcilable."
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large for The Washington Times and
for United Press International.