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Obama: ‘Taking the fight’ to Afghanistan

New president will have his hands full with war that is eclipsing conflict in Iraq

By DREW BROWN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 6, 2008

A worsening war in Afghanistan — and a growing Taliban and al-Qaida insurgency in the tribal areas of nuclear-armed neighboring Pakistan — will loom large on the agenda for President-elect Barack Obama during the next four years.

On the campaign trail, Obama argued that the war in Iraq has drained troops and resources from the battlefield in Afghanistan, causing the situation there to deteriorate. He has described Afghanistan as "the war we need to win," and he has pledged to send at least two more brigades of U.S. troops to reinforce the 70,000 U.S. and NATO forces already serving in the country.

Obama has also pledged to press NATO allies to contribute more forces, and he has said he will step up training for the Afghan army and police, as well as increase non-military aid to Afghanistan by $1 billion.

"When I am president, we will wage the war that has to be won," Obama vowed, outlining his plans in an Aug. 1, 2007, speech at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. "(But) the first step must be getting off the wrong battlefield in Iraq, and taking the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Obama has said he will not "tolerate a terrorist sanctuary" in Pakistan, and he has suggested that he will send U.S. forces on cross-border raids to eliminate high-value terrorists if the Pakistani government cannot or will not take action.

But making campaign promises is one thing. Turning them into realities on the ground is another.

Afghanistan is quickly eclipsing Iraq as the deadlier of America’s two wars. Since May, U.S. casualty figures in Afghanistan have virtually matched those in Iraq on a monthly basis, and for the past two months, more U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

At least 151 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan so far this year, making 2008 the deadliest for U.S. forces since the war began seven years ago, according to icasualties.org. Another 104 soldiers from other countries also have died, according to the Web site. Insurgent attacks and the numbers of civilians killed in the war are also at an all-time high.

At least 626 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001.

More troops urged

There are currently about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but commanders have been clamoring for more forces. U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of NATO-led troops, has said that at least 10,000 more soldiers are needed in the country, along with more helicopters, intelligence teams and logistics support.

But with 150,000 U.S. servicemembers committed to Iraq, a significant drawdown is going to have to occur there first, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned last June. And analysts caution that sending more troops to Afghanistan is not likely to have the same effect as it did in Iraq, where the so-called troop "surge" last year played a significant role in reducing violence.

"My sense is that we’re not going to troop-surge our way out of Afghanistan," said Stephen Biddle, a former Army War College professor and now a senior fellow on defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. "The problem is that the troop ratio needs are too much. Conventional wisdom says that there are not enough feasible reinforcements that can be sent to Afghanistan, even if you draw down fully from Iraq."

In addition to sending at least another two combat brigades to Afghanistan, Obama has said he will press other NATO countries to send more troops and that he would push for those countries that have restrictions on sending troops into combat to lift them.

But there now appears to be little appetite within NATO for either.

Britain, which has 8,000 soldiers operating mostly in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, has said it doesn’t plan to send any reinforcements, even as it pulls its remaining forces out of Iraq. Britain has lost more than 121 soldiers in Afghanistan, the second-highest total after the United States.

Canada, which has 2,500 soldiers operating in neighboring Kandahar province, plans to pull its troops out of the province by the end of 2011. Canada has lost 97 troops so far, the third-highest total of the war.

France has about 2,600 soldiers serving in Afghanistan, and its parliament voted in September to send another 100 troops, along with more helicopters, unmanned aircraft, mortars and intelligence gathering equipment. But according to press reports from the country, polls indicate that opposition to the Afghan mission is growing. France has lost at least 24 soldiers in Afghanistan since 2002.

Of the other major NATO powers, Germany has about 3,000 soldiers operating in Afghanistan, but its troops are limited to operating north of Kabul, mostly away from combat, and Berlin has repeatedly resisted pressure from the United States and Britain to send troops south into the fighting. Germany has lost about 28 soldiers in Afghanistan, and the mission remains deeply unpopular among Germans.

"It’s probably not going to happen, in terms of caveats or numbers," said Michael E. O’Hanlon, who specializes in U.S. national security policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., speaking of a larger NATO commitment.

The Pakistan problem

In addition to dealing with the war in Afghanistan, Obama is also going to have to confront a growing Taliban and al-Qaida insurgency in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which some analysts see a bigger and more important threat.

"Dealing with Pakistan, where America’s mortal foe al-Qaida is nestled alongside the Taliban, is clearly the most pressing problem we face," Bing West, a retired Marine and former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, wrote last week in The National Interest, a foreign policy journal.

In one of his most provocative stances of the campaign, Obama suggested that he would send U.S. combat troops into Pakistan to take out terrorist targets.

"If the United States has al-Qaida, bin Laden, (or) top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out," Obama said, during the first presidential debate at the University of Mississippi on Sept. 26.

But the one known cross-border raid that U.S. forces conducted into Pakistan on Sept. 3 elicited strong condemnation from the Pakistani government, which threatened to open fire on any more U.S. troops who cross the border.

Pakistan has also demanded that CIA missile attacks on its territory be stopped. Missile attacks by unmanned drones operated by the CIA have gone up dramatically in recent months, as U.S. officials have complained that the Pakistani military has not done enough to go after Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries in the tribal areas.

The ISI, Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, has long-standing ties to the Taliban and other militant groups that date back to the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the agency has funded Kashmiri militant groups in its decades-long struggle against India. Pakistan claims those ties have been severed, but many Western officials remain skeptical.

While more attention to Pakistan is generally welcomed among analysts, some warn that taking too much aggressive action in the country could actually destabilize relations with the United States and harm efforts to hunt terrorists.

Independent U.S. action should be taken "only if we have a very, very high-value target in our field of view," said O’Hanlon.

Biddle said that he would be "careful" judging from Obama’s campaign statements how aggressive he might be in Pakistan.

"It’s his way of indicating he’s not soft on terrorism," Biddle said. "(But) I would hope that as a citizen and a taxpayer that should Obama be elected, strategy reviews of these positions would take place between him and his advisers."