x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Obama wrestles with Afghanistan strategy

George W Bush may have started America's involvement in Afghanistan, but it has quickly become Barack Obama's war.

NEW YORK // George W Bush may have started America's involvement in Afghanistan, but it has quickly become Barack Obama's war. Since the spring, Mr Obama has been wrestling with how to handle a failing conflict. Should he limit or expand America's role in a region that has defeated empires from the British to the Soviets? This week, the issue came to a head as the president formally received a request from his military commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, for 40,000 more troops and billions of dollars in additional resources to stabilise the country.

That decision was expected to be discussed in earnest yesterday during the latest in a series of meetings between Mr Obama and his top security and military advisers. Within the White House and the Pentagon and on the ground in Afghanistan, there are strong, differing views on how to proceed. There are those like Gen David Petraeus, the head of central command who oversaw the successful troop surge in Iraq and believes a similar tactic could work in Afghanistan, building security so a stable state can emerge.

Opposing him are the likes of the vice president, Joe Biden, who believes America would be better served by a more limited war, focused on attacking and destroying the terrorist networks in the southern and eastern corners of the country. Mr Biden's view, that the Taliban and al Qa'eda are two separate issues which can be dealt with separately, has been gaining traction in recent days. In the centre is the new president, caught between military and strategic goals and budgetary and political considerations. He will have to make a good case for risking yet more blood on another distant conflict.

This week, he and his national security team spoke of a compromise: a plan to build up the Afghan government and army without committing any more American troops. The economics are simple: it costs US$250,000 (Dh920,000) a year to keep an American soldier in Afghanistan. It costs just $12,000 (Dh44,000) to support an Afghan soldier. To replicate the Iraq surge in Afghanistan would have required billions of dollars from an already depleted US treasury.

But by denying the military the resources they are requesting, Mr Obama risks letting Afghanistan drag out into a long, unwinnable war. It is already entering its ninth year, with no end in sight. Fred Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, said the strategy of focusing on al Qa'eda is the riskier route. "It will likely have to be executed against the backdrop of state collapse and civil war in Afghanistan, spiralling extremism and loss of will in Pakistan and floods of refugees. These conditions would benefit al Qa'eda greatly by creating an expanding area of chaos, an environment in which al Qa'eda thrives. They would also make the collection of intelligence and the accurate targeting of terrorists extremely difficult."

Mr Obama's aides say he has not yet ruled out the military's request for 40,000 additional troops, but the president's rhetoric suggests he is opposed to it. In May, Mr Obama took the drastic measure of firing Gen David McKiernan, the commanding general in Afghanistan. It was the first sacking of a wartime theatre commander since President Harry Truman dismissed Gen Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for opposing his Korean War policy.

Gen McKiernan, it was felt in Washington, was ill-suited to modern warfare. He was a traditional logistics specialist in an era when generals need to be steeped in asymmetric warfare, counterinsurgency and Washington politics. His replacement, Gen McChrystal, was all of the above. The Pentagon and White House hoped he would help win over Congress and the American people as well as improve the situation on the ground.

Gen McChrystal has certainly been dynamic, though not in the way the White House might have hoped. In early March, after weeks of debate, Mr Obama's strategic review of Afghanistan appeared to have reached a conclusion: the United States needed to mount a comprehensive counterinsurgency mission, involving troops and civilian experts, to defeat the Taliban. But then came the issue of resources. Mr Obama had sent 21,000 additional troops in February, but the harder Gen McChrystal looked, the more he thought he would need. He requested 40,000 troops in addition to the 68,000 already on the ground. Civilian specialists and reconstruction projects would cost billions more. It was exactly what Gen McKiernan had been saying and been fired for.

In his recent review of the situation in Afghanistan, Gen McChrystal wrote: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term [the next 12 months] - while Afghan security capacity matures - risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." America had to act now and with force. Events in the country seem to support Gen McChrystal's grim view. Over the past year, the Taliban have become more effective at small-unit action targeting US and Nato troops. On Thursday, the Taliban drove a car bomb into the Indian Embassy in Kabul, killing 17 people.

Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defence policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said failure in Afghanistan was not inevitable. But he cautioned, if the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, there would be a much greater risk of the state tumbling into anarchy. If that happened, the risk of a Pakistani nuclear bomb falling into the hands of al Qa'eda would be much greater. "Neither course, staying or leaving, is politically easy or strategically safe," he said. "But leaving is perhaps the greater gamble."

* The National