x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Obama's future tied with fortunes of war

As the US president commits 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, members of his own party have expressed dismay at his decision, and what it will cost.

WASHINGTON // Barack Obama's decision to add 30,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan is a high-stakes gamble that gives him unquestioned ownership of the eight-year conflict at a time when casualties are reaching record highs and support at home is dwindling.

Until now, Mr Obama and his top officials have been afforded the political luxury of laying much of the blame for the faltering war effort at the foot of the Bush administration, which they said became preoccupied with Iraq. Mr Obama used that argument again on Tuesday during his primetime speech in New York at the US Military Academy at West Point, referring to a six-year period when Iraq "drew the dominant share of our troops, our resources, our diplomacy and our national attention".

With the size of the US force expected to reach 100,000 by next summer - and more than half of those troops deployed on Mr Obama's watch - political observers say, fair or not, it is no longer possible for the Obama administration to skirt Afghanistan's political ramifications. "It makes it impossible for him to say 'we inherited this mess'," said Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University in Washington. "Like the Vietnam War became Mr Johnson's war, the Afghanistan war is now Mr Obama's war."

The decision to escalate the US presence has far-reaching political consequences for the president, whose strategy goes against the wishes of many of his fellow Democrats and could alienate the base of voters who chose him as an alternative to hawkish Republican policies. If the tide of the war does not rapidly turn in the United States' favour, it could jeopardise his chances for a second term, some analysts say.

Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor and retired army officer, who opposes a troop increase, said Mr Obama is making a "huge mistake" by pursuing a flawed strategy reminiscent of the Bush administration. "Through this decision, President Obama is making himself a party to the idea that through the comprehensive use of American hard power he can change the greater Middle East," Mr Bacevich said.

Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired army colonel who served as chief of staff to Colin Powell when he was secretary of state under George W Bush, said that Mr Obama, faced with a grim assessment by his top military commander, Gen Stanley McChrsytal, who predicted failure if the number of troops was not increased, had little choice but to escalate the war. "His generals painted him into a corner," he said, adding that Mr Obama's campaign rhetoric depicting Afghanistan as the "real war" also made it difficult for him to do decide on a different course of action.

In his remarks, Mr Obama set out to convey two main points to the public and US allies abroad: that the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting and that success there - broadly defined as the ability to fully transfer control of the country to Afghan forces - can be achieved at an acceptable cost. In a departure from his predecessor, Mr Obama set a rigid timeline for withdrawal, saying he planned to "begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan" by July 2011, and reiterating his oft-stated assertion that the war is not "open-ended". He also said the strategy would be contingent on new troop contributions from Nato allies - he called the conflict a "test of Nato's credibility" - and outlined a new civilian and military partnership with Pakistan.

Many questions remain unanswered, including concerns about whether the United States has a reliable partner in Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, whose recent re-election was tainted by fraud. Doubts also persist about the US ability to cultivate a competent Afghan fighting force or whether the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, can survive challenges to his power. Mr Obama also must answer one question that has irked many Democrats, whose support he needs as he moves forwards with his other initiatives: what happens if conditions do not improve in the next 18 months?

Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania senator who crossed over to the Democratic Party in April, said in a statement after Mr Obama's speech that he was "not persuaded" that the troop increase was "indispensable in our fight against Al Qa'eda". Russ Feingold, a liberal senator from Wisconsin, echoed the concerns of many Democratic colleagues by calling the surge an "expensive gamble to undertake armed nation-building on behalf of a corrupt government of questionable legitimacy". Democrats also worry about the war's cost at a time of record-breaking US deficits and severe unemployment. House Democrats last month proposed a "war surtax" to help cover its cost.

The president received a warmer reception on the Republican side of the aisle. John McCain, Mr Obama's opponent in last year's election, said in a statement that he believes Mr Obama has made the "right decision to embrace a counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan", but called the withdrawal date "arbitrary". sstanek@thenational.ae