Parading Toward Retreat

Obama’s Afghanistan strategy is not popular in the United States. All NATO members want to see an exit strategy. The definition of “success” is being constantly scaled down. No one speaks of Western-style democracy any longer. The goal is now an Afghanistan where terrorist attacks are no longer planned.

His predecessor is still shadowing him. Barack Obama inherited a catastrophic economic crisis and two wars from George W. Bush. Obama has always considered the Iraq war a mistake; in contrast, he thinks the war in Afghanistan is a “war of necessity,” a war that was forced on America and one that must be won. But the situation there has dramatically deteriorated – in Obama’s opinion, this is because of Bush’s neglect. To compensate, Obama now intends to transfer the Iraq strategy to Afghanistan by announcing a troop surge of 30,000 soldiers next Tuesday. The rationale is that a troop surge is necessary to reach a turning point; only then would withdrawal be possible.

Bush did something similar in Iraq in 2007. Success there proved him right. In addition to an increase of 30,000 troops, the Sunnis – who previously supported the insurgency – also switched sides. Thanks to that stabilization, Obama was able to begin the Iraq draw-down.

In Afghanistan, however, Obama is behaving like a militarist. When he entered the White House last January, the U.S. had 33,000 troops in Afghanistan. In March, he ordered 68,000 more troops, a tripling of troop strength under his leadership; the announcement came just days before he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

Bush boasted that he made such decisions based on “gut feeling.” Obama thinks with his head. He has conferred for weeks with his political advisers, as well as military and economic experts. Republicans ridicule him as a procrastinator; the White House counters by saying the right decision is more important than a speedy one and that troop strength is just one of many factors: It’s all about a comprehensive strategy that coordinates civilian reconstruction with military security, the keys being Afghanization and regionalization.

Afghanization: A good part of the new force is to emerge from accelerated training of the Afghan army and police force. By 2012, Afghan troop strength is to increase from 92,000 to 240,000 and police forces are to increase from 84,000 to 160,000.

Regionalization: Afghanistan’s central government under Hamid Karzai is weak, but there are powerful local leaders in the provinces that could guarantee security, even without NATO’s assistance.

Obama’s Afghanistan strategy is unpopular at home. After eight years of war with questionable results, half of all Americans feel that Afghanistan isn’t worth the price being paid. The president is meeting resistance from his own party. The troop surge will cost $1 million per soldier annually, $30 billion total. Democrats warn that the U.S. can’t afford it, in view of the increasing national debt. Obama finds it increasingly necessary to rely on Republican support in Congress; Republicans say he should have increased troop strength long ago.

And America’s allies? They generally favor a little more civilian development aid or sending just a few hundred more troops, so they have little say in the matter. In 2010, the United States will account for 75 percent of all foreign troops in Afghanistan. He who pays the piper gets to call the tune. NATO partners are all weary of Afghanistan; they all want to see an exit strategy. The definition of “success” that justifies such a strategy is constantly being scaled back. Nobody talks of a Western-style democracy, a constitutional government or education for little girls any longer. The goal now is just an Afghanistan where terrorist attacks are no longer planned – even after all the sacrifices.

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