Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Will Obama's Troop Surge Make A Difference?

by: Caroline Sutcliffe, photo, the NY Times

President Obama has not, with his announcement of 30,000 more troops, reconfigured US military engagement with Afghanistan. He has simply confirmed General McChrystal's request for more troops and just reaffirmed his commitment to a military strategy that has been under discussion and in the pipeline since before his inauguration. Essentially, whether or not the troop surge will suppress the insurgency—much less 'finish the job' and 'bring a successful conclusion to the war—is extremely questionable.

My first premise is that early indications from the first troop increase of 21,000 soldiers announced earlier this year, points to an exacerbation and escalation of violence with record-high levels of military fatalities and civilian casualties. Regarding this, my question is: what these troops will do on the ground, and how will their increased presence is received by Afghans who are ‘war weary’? Accordingly, this week’s Economist asserts that uncertainty over the army’s progress may have dimmed support for the anti-Taliban campaign. Essentially, the problem is that if— the Obama administration has made it clear that the Afghan government needs to play its part in tackling the Taliban on its border—then the question that comes to mind is: will 30,000 more troops really renew the dimmed support of the Afghani people? Sure, the U.S. is setting out plans to quickly train large numbers of the Afghan army to take up their part in the fight, but this is not without its difficulties.

Second, remember: the Taliban presents a [transnational] threat. Thus my second problem with Obama’s strategy is that it has worrying consequences for Pakistan (which also houses the Taliban). For one, Pakistan fears that an American retreat from the region could mean an end to the lavish sum of U.S. aid—a figure of $7.5 million in the past five years. Pakistan is currently arguing for America to seek a high-level political settlement with its Taliban enemies [which won’t happen]. But— why it wants a hand in this settlement, which I find very interesting, is to exert its influence over Afghanistan—to India’s cost. (Intuitively, this reminds me of the ‘great game’ and the buffering of the British and Russia over Afghanistan, not too long ago). But arguably, such could easily fuel more Islamist blowback from its radicalized frontier.

Another factor on the transnational level, is that the U.S. is going to inevitably “butt heads” with Iran. Why Iran is one of Afghanistan’s most reliable trade partners, and through these economic activities its ties and influence over Afghanistan’s western provinces bordering Iran, particularly Herat, continue to grow. For example, Iran’s exports to Afghanistan amount to $500 million per year and it has pledged a generous reconstruction package to help rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure. This includes the plans to provide electricity to western Afghanistan through a multi-million dollar project.

The bottom line is that the Obama administration's answer to the worsening situation in the country appears to be: "more." More troops, civilians, tasks, and missions. And sure, there is nothing wrong with helping Afghans develop their country--however, if the goal is to give Afghanistan a strong, functioning central government and a viable economy, the task will require decades, not years. Obama's plan has no fix for the future. While I agree that Obama’s recently announced surge will definitely grey the hair on the Taliban and cause quite a few of their deaths, other options might be a more incremental approach. It’s a complex job. -This troop surge is framed within an exit strategy but you can’t simply [leave] things as they are. For instance, think of all the opium being smuggled out of its three drug trade routes--moreover, the high rates of attrition throughout the country, its ethnic imbalances—ex: Baluchistan, and on. So, will Obama’s counterinsurgency effort make a difference? Only time will see.