The U.S. foreign policy debate these days revolves around President Bush’s controversial “new way forward” in Iraq. Military commanders in Iraq split over the wisdom of adding more troops there, but there is no such division in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates told reporters after a recent visit to Kabul: “There’s no reason to sit back and let the Taliban regroup” (NPR). Thus, President Bush will extend the tours of 3,200 troops by four months and ask Congress to invest an additional $10.6 billion into its Afghan campaign (IHT). Kurt Volker, one of the U.S. State Department’s chief officials responsible for NATO policy, tells CFR.org’s Robert McMahon that the United States also wants to resolve the issue of national “caveats” impeding some NATO countries from letting their troops fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with NATO foreign ministers Friday, urging them to ramp up their own commitments to Afghanistan (BBC).
NATO commanders in the region expect mounting clashes with the resurgent Taliban guerillas, primarily in the south of the country. Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, the outgoing top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told reporters on January 16: “It is going to be a violent spring and we’re going to have violence into the summer.” The U.S. military released annual statistics showing a nearly five-fold increase (Globe & Mail) in direct attacks on NATO forces from 2005 to 2006. The spike in violence comes as Afghans continue to struggle to restore their livelihoods. Washington Post correspondent Pamela Constable says five years after the overthrow of the Taliban, “The country is still so destitute and undeveloped that most inhabitants have no central heating, electricity or running water.”
International force levels have been steadily rising; the nearly twenty-four thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan slightly outnumber the total number of NATO forces in the country. Any increase in U.S. forces would be small in comparison to 21,500-strong “surge” President Bush plans for Iraq. Washington Post blogger William M. Arkin, a former Army intelligence analyst, said of the recent tough moves from Iraq to Somalia: “The new, new strategy is to pile on.”
While most Americans bristle at the notion of sending additional forces into Iraq—60 percent, according to a recent poll (PDF)—Afghanistan may prove different. A Christian Science Monitor op-ed notes Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden’s (D-DE) opinion that “If we're surging troops anywhere, it should be in Afghanistan.” A USA Today editorial also favors more U.S. boots on Afghan soil.
Part of the willingness to accept greater involvement in Afghanistan comes from a more broadly held view that it could actually make a difference. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Afghanistan expert Barnett R. Rubin says the country can only be saved if Western powers increase their commitment. Rubin also advocates a stronger stance on Pakistan, where “the Taliban and al-Qaeda maintain critical sanctuaries,” (PDF) according to recent congressional testimony from outgoing National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.
Secretary Gates also expressed fresh concern about increasing cross-border attacks (Bloomberg) from Pakistan. Many of these fighters continue to come from Pakistan’s somewhat lawless tribal lands, where an agreement between Islamabad and tribal leaders appears to have failed to staunch (IHT) the flow of fighters across the border. This, says the Economist, could be a harbinger of al-Qaeda’s revival.