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Troops, Timetables, and Afghanistan

Author: Greg Bruno
December 1, 2009

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When President Barack Obama previewed his new Afghan strategy last week--details of which he will unveil at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point this evening--his message of urgency had a familiar ring. Obama lamented eight years of U.S. military engagement that he said lacked the proper "resources or the strategy to get the job done." He added: "it is my intention to finish the job."

To do this, Obama is expected to authorize an increase of more than thirty thousand U.S. troops (WashPost) to Afghanistan, bringing the total U.S. forces in the fight to nearly one hundred thousand. Coupled with a fresh commitment from Britain (Guardian) and possible NATO reinforcements, the total allotment of new fighters could be close to the forty thousand (CSMonitor) requested by the top commander in the country, General Stanley A. McChrystal.

For some analysts, Obama's long-awaited strategy is likely to fall short. Obama's speech will reportedly include a time frame for winding down U.S. military involvement, a move already raising criticism from leading Republican lawmakers in Washington. Writes Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard: "Emphasizing an exit strategy would be counterproductive. He needs to concentrate on what's required and what he's ordering to prevail in Afghanistan."

On the other hand, Obama's aides have stressed the need to avoid an open-ended military commitment. Senator Carl Levin, a leading Democrat on military affairs, told CBS' Face the Nation that what the war effort really needs is not more American troops, but extra Afghan fighters (PDF), an approach favored by commanders on the ground. CFR President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb writes he is encouraged by signals that Obama is changing the mission (Daily Beast) from trying to "defeat" al-Qaeda to the more achievable goal of "dismantl[ing] and degrad[ing]" al-Qaeda and its allies. But he says it's crucial that within a few years the U.S. forces transfer the main responsibility for the war effort to Afghan forces. Yet in this area, too, disappointment is possible if Obama has indeed "soured" on calls to double the size of the Afghan army, as the Wall Street Journal suggests. Partners in Pakistan are also voicing concern, including worry that more troops in Afghanistan could force an influx of militants across the border (Dawn).

Even if Obama delivers additional troops, many experts say Afghanistan's woes will continue unless legitimacy is returned to the government in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai, who won his latest term after a fraud-riddled vote, is widely seen as ineffective and compromised. CFR press fellow Kim Barker, who spent part of the fall in the Afghan capital, says many Afghans are tired of the endless cycle of corruption; pressure must be put on Karzai to appoint legitimate provincial governors to give Afghans a credible, democratic voice.

Public patience for such a project may be waning. A mid-November Washington Post poll found that 52 percent of Americans now believe the war is not worth fighting, a trend mirrored by other recent surveys (LAT). Obama is nonetheless voicing optimism that after eight years of war, victory can be salvaged. Convincing a skeptical Congress and wavering allies--stung by the political and economic costs of a war now eight years old--could prove more difficult. As Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies sees it, Obama has so far failed to earn the trust of the international community on his approach to managing the war. But it's a trend he can reverse, Cordesman says, by getting specific on strategy (PDF).

Additional Analysis and Background

Four experts present differing assessments on cooperation between al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban and the threat posed by their relationship.

In Foreign Policy, J. Alexander Thier writes that bolstering the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is essential in helping to stabilize neighboring Pakistan, a source of much deeper concern to security specialists.

CFR International Affairs Fellow George Gavrilis writes in Foreign Affairs that the experience of neighboring Tajikistan--stable if corrupt--holds lessons for Afghanistan and its international partners.

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