x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Obama's war strategy under spotlight

As the number of US casualties in Afghanistan rises, many are uneasy over Obama's plan to deepen involvement.

WASHINGTON // As the number of US casualties in Afghanistan rises and the administration mulls the possibility of adding even more troops to the front lines, Congressional opposition to Barack Obama's war strategy could soon grow louder. Legislators do not question the threat posed by the Taliban and al Qa'eda and many have agreed with the president's assessment that Afghanistan is a war of necessity in contrast to Iraq, which he has called a "war of choice".

But some have been critical of the president's plan to deepen US involvement in a war that has no clearly defined benchmarks or exit strategy. These lawmakers may soon speak with a stronger voice, according to Maxine Waters, a Democratic congresswoman from California and co-founder of the Out-of-Iraq caucus, a group of like-minded House members seeking a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. "We have not said enough or done enough about what's going on in Afghanistan," Ms Waters said in an interview last week just before the House embarked on a month-long recess. "We have got to reorganise and put attention on this war in Afghanistan and describe what is going on there."

Mr Obama has deployed an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total number of US troops in that country to more than 60,000. But the troop escalation and a recent offensive in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province have led to a spike in casualties of the sort that could quickly make the president's war plan unpopular. In July, 76 coalition troops were killed in Afghanistan, including 45 American soldiers, making it the deadliest month since the US-led invasion in 2001, according to the website www.icasualties.org. The previous highest monthly total was 28 deaths in June 2008. Separate roadside bombings over the first weekend in August killed six US soldiers.

The news comes as the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, is said to be considering a new request for additional troops. Later this month, Gen McChrystal will present the findings of his review of the war effort. The review, commissioned by Robert Gates, the defence secretary, included a panel of civilian advisers who had been travelling in Afghanistan and recently reported back to Gen McChrystal with their findings.

Two such advisers, Anthony Cordesman, a military strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Stephen Biddle, a US defence policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said last week they advocated sending more troops. "We, the United States, are going to have to provide the resources if we want to win," Mr Cordesman said in a briefing with reporters. "This means very substantial budget increases, it means more brigade combat troops and it means financing both the civilian effort needed in the field and a near doubling of Afghan national security forces."

No one knows how the White House, which has been bracing Congress and the American public for more casualties, would receive a request to deploy more soldiers. But it may be hard for some war-weary legislators to swallow. So far much of the opposition has been voiced by Mr Obama's fellow Democrats. Commenting on the high number of casualties last month, Russ Feingold, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin, said in a statement he "continues to be concerned that the troop increase in Afghanistan will lead to more grim milestones like this one and will not have a lasting impact on our ability to deny al Qa'eda a safe haven in that region".

He added: "I am concerned that the so-called surge may actually make matters worse by pushing militants into Pakistan." In May, James McGovern, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, submitted a resolution with 95 co-sponsors that would require the Pentagon to develop an exit strategy by the end of the year. A similar amendment, proposed by Mr McGovern earlier this year, did not pass a House vote.

Frederick Jones, a spokesman for John Kerry, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said the Massachusetts senator was "concerned about America's footprint in that country" but will give the new policies a chance to "bear fruit" before passing judgment. Mr Kerry, a Democrat, has supported Mr Obama's troop deployments, but he has also compared Afghanistan to another intractable US war: Vietnam. Mr Kerry will travel to Afghanistan later this month for the August 20 national elections.

Ms Waters, the California congresswoman, said she was unsure if her liberal colleagues would establish an "Out-of-Afghanistan" caucus, but she noted, "the public will be hearing a lot more" from the anti-war opposition. She said that some members had been "distracted" by the debate on healthcare reform that is raging in Washington. "We just had the deadliest month without a lot of reaction by the Congress of the United States," she said.

sstanek@thenational.ae