Obama’s Afghanistan Challenge

Front Page Magazine

November 10, 2008 – During his quest for the presidency, president-elect Barack Obama scored considerable points with the American public when he stated that America must “get off the wrong battlefield in Iraq and take the fight to the terrorists in Pakistan.” That is where bin Laden and al Qaeda are, he emphasized.

Taking advantage of the Iraq war’s unpopularity, Obama promised to send more American troops to the Pakistan-Afghan front as they become available from Mesopotamia, making that proposal a central plank in his foreign policy platform. His pronouncement on the Afghan war theater was also meant to give Obama credibility in an area he was deemed weakest: foreign affairs.

But with the election now over, the challenges facing the incoming president in the turbulent Afghanistan-Pakistan region are much more complex than those espoused on the campaign trail. And their resolution will also require more than the two extra brigades Obama said he will send to Afghanistan next year.

On the issue of troop numbers alone, military analysts agree more foreign soldiers are needed in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area of operations. According to the military website, strategypage.com, the Taliban has increased its number of fighters by 20 to 30 percent this year due to an upsurge in drug revenues. As well, defeated al Qaeda fighters and bomb makers from Iraq have rallied to the terrorist organization’s border sanctuaries in Pakistan where their presence has been felt in the Afghanistan conflict.

In turn, this growth in al Qaeda and Taliban numbers has caused an increase in violence in Afghanistan this year and a corresponding larger number of American and allied casualties. But perhaps even worse from both the security viewpoint and the winning of hearts and minds, NATO troops and Afghan troops have had to withdraw from areas they once controlled due to a lack of boots on the ground, leaving the local population to the mercies of the Taliban. A senior Canadian officer said the Canadian contingent would need to double its numbers to 5,000 to keep the Taliban away from important districts around Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace.

As a result, military experts have estimated that the number of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan should be tripled from the present 50,000-60,000 to about 150,000, and the Afghan army and national police be increased from its present size of about 120,000 to 500,000. These numbers are similar to those which were responsible for successfully bringing a war-torn Iraq under control, a country smaller in size and population than Afghanistan.

But the question is whether Obama, who promised to bring American troops home from Iraq within 16 months after being elected, would be willing to redirect them so soon to Afghanistan. And will he be willing to send the large numbers deemed necessary to do the job? Failure to do so would lead to the suspicion that Obama was simply using the Afghanistan conflict and the call to fight bin Laden and al Qaeda as an excuse to end the Iraq war the Democrats detest.

Another major challenge facing the Obama administration in Afghanistan is the Afghan government itself. Corruption is rife among Afghan officials and police, who have lost much trust among the Afghan people. Money for rebuilding the country has gone missing. And even President Hamid Karzai and his brother have been accused of accepting bribes from drug gangs. It is here, in the all-important civil sector, that the war may be lost since no viable state can be set up without the Afghan people’s support. With such misrule, even if the Taliban were defeated, Afghanistan would probably relapse into the warlordism of the 1990s without a NATO presence.

What should hearten the incoming president, though, is that conditions in Pakistan are improving regarding the war against Islamic extremists on Pakistani territory. This is good news for Obama, since events in Afghanistan are a consequence of what is happening in Pakistan.

The Pakistan government outlawed the Taliban and launched an all-out offensive against it and al Qaeda last August in their border sanctuaries. Hundreds of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters have been killed since then and hundreds more foreign combatants have been arrested. The Pakistani Taliban is so hard-pressed, it has offered to lay down its arms and hold talks with the government, an offer President Asif Zardari, in his determination to eliminate the extremist threat to seize the Pakistani state, has so far refused. But it will still be some time, Pakistani officials admit, before that threat will be completely eliminated.

The Pakistani government’s resolute action against al Qaeda and the Taliban, however, may let Obama off the hook on one of his more controversial campaign promises. Obama stated he would send troops into Pakistan without that government’s permission if “actionable intelligence” existed that al Qaeda was planning another terrorist attack against America and the Pakistanis were failing to act on it. This statement made him unpopular in Pakistan, one of the few countries where he trailed in the popularity polls during the election campaign.

In the end, Obama may bring his own tools to the table to deal with the challenge of Afghanistan. He has stated he believes in a multilateral approach in dealing with international problems, so he may include countries such as Russia, Iran and the Central Asian states in talks regarding the Afghanistan conflict. The president-elect also said it will be necessary to “win over the hearts and minds of 1.3 billion Muslims” or ‘it was going to be very difficult for us to win the long war against extremism.” This represents a greater challenge, of which Afghanistan is a part; but success here would constitute Obama’s greatest achievement of all.

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