By Jennifer Koons in London (ARR No. 297, 17-Jul-08)
If elected president in the autumn, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama aims to redirect America’s foreign policy focus to combating terrorism in South Asia, but questions remain about the feasibility of his strategy, including how easily the United States will be able to disentangle itself from Iraq and whether more troops will lead to success in Afghanistan.
In a major foreign policy address in Washington DC, on July 15, the Illinois senator detailed his plan to draw down American forces in Iraq during his first 16-months in office and redeploy at least two additional combat brigades or roughly 10,000 more US soldiers to Afghanistan.
But analysts are divided about the merits of decreasing US military involvement in Iraq at a time when the drop-off in violence in the country has been largely attributed to the deployment of 30,000 additional American troops on the ground.
“Taking troops out of Iraq is totally unrealistic,” said Toby Dodge, senior fellow for the Middle East at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Back in 2005 and 2006, Bush tried to draw down troops and limit casualties and that nearly led to a full-blown civil war.”
The so-called American troop “surge” came to an end this month and General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, will spend the next 45 days assessing the security situation ahead of his expected testimony before Congress in September.
“I am sceptical that Obama will be able to shift to the degree that he has proposed in Iraq,” said Sam Brannen, a security analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. “I have been wrong so far about Iraq since progress is slowly being made and so I hope I continue to be wrong.”
Brannen said he questioned the plan to decrease troop levels when upcoming events may require their presence to ensure continued stability in the country.
“With the upcoming provincial elections and the national election looming on the horizon and with the US occupation now becoming a domestic political issue pushed by [Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki], we’ll have a tough time in Iraq and it will be difficult to move troops.”
The Iraqi provincial elections are expected to be held before the end of the year and the national elections are scheduled for the end of 2009. Under Obama’s plan, the US would begin a measured withdrawal from the time he takes office through the summer of 2010.
Obama has welcomed Maliki’s own call for a staged pullout as “an enormous opportunity” to implement his strategy.
But Dodge called Maliki’s statements political posturing in an effort to get the upper hand in ongoing talks about a new agreement for American troops to remain in the country into next year.
“The only reason Maliki says he is backing a troop pullout is because he’s in negotiations with the Bush administration and he’s trying to show that he wants more autonomy over his government,” said Dodge. “In reality, Maliki realises that the presence of US troops has contributed to the progress on the ground that he is now taking credit for.”
However, not everyone predicts Obama’s strategy for withdrawal will lead to renewed unrest.
“I don’t agree with those who say that a measured troop withdrawal would squander the gains from the surge,” said Dana Allin, senior fellow for transatlantic affairs at IISS. “You’re not going to have a perfect Iraq and that shouldn’t be our goal. If you can withdrawal safely and responsibly and carefully that’s about the best chance of success you’ll get.”
Freeing up enough troops from Iraq to send to Afghanistan is part of the Democratic senator’s two-pronged plan to combat the rising threat of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the region: increasing the US military presence in the country and dramatically beefing up foreign aid for an enhanced reconstruction effort.
While his campaign team have kept details under wraps for security reasons, the senator plans to make his first trip to Afghanistan as early as this week.
The trip comes amid one of the most violent summers for US and allied troops in the country. In the deadliest attack against coalition forces since 2005, nine American soldiers were killed on July 13 when they came under heavy fire at a military base in eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan.
Last month, 28 US coalition soldiers were killed while fighting in Afghanistan.
Commanders on the ground have attributed the increased violence to the renewed strength of Taleban militants and their associates as well as the lax security along the 2,400-kilometre Afghan-Pakistan border. Violence has risen by 40 per cent in eastern Afghanistan this year, US army major general Jeffrey Schloesser told reporters during a teleconference from Afghanistan in June.
“Obama has been calling for additional forces for almost two years now and as he said in his speech [on July 15], the focus of this administration – almost the obsession of this administration – and Senator McCain with the war in Iraq has [cast] Afghanistan as the forgotten war and that’s why the situation has deteriorated there,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer now at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC.
Riedel, who also acts as an unpaid adviser to Obama on Afghanistan and South Asia, said additional troops in the region would fulfil a number of functions, primarily in the southern part of the country where NATO commanders on the ground “simply do not have enough troops to secure the area”.
“These additional troops wouldn’t necessarily be border guards, but they would be used to help existing forces – including the British troops – in the Kandahar and Helmand provinces,” said Riedel.
While more troops on the ground may offer initial benefits, the long-term costs could be higher than Obama realises, according to Brannen.
“Additional troops along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border may in the short-term decrease the ability of the Taleban to penetrate into Afghanistan from Pakistan along known routes of infiltration,” he said. “However, it is a [long] border along mostly rugged terrain, and it is likely the Taleban will simply move their activity where US troops aren’t. Border protection missions aren’t easy anywhere, let alone a war zone.”
More troops will also lead to more American fatalities, he said.
“It’s worth noting that more troops mean more potential targets and more chances of US casualties inflicted by Taleban ambush, IED (improvised explosive device) and other tactics that are mainly responsible for the increase in casualties over the past few years,” said Brannen.
Tackling this threat depends on the willingness of Pakistani authorities to crack down on a resurgent Taleban and al-Qaeda operatives who have found sanctuary in the country’s border regions.
Though allies of the Bush administration, Pakistani officials have come under fire for holding talks with militants in tribal areas – which, Washington argues, has led to increased attacks against US and NATO troops along the border.
“The war in Afghanistan cannot be won without a new strategy of dealing with Pakistan,” said Riedel. “This is part of Obama’s much broader plan that tries to improve the economic situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Taking a carrot-and-stick approach, the Democratic senator has pledged that his administration would press Pakistan to root out militants – and reward it for doing so with a massive increase in foreign aid.
“We must expect more of the Pakistani government, but we must offer more than a blank check to [President Pervez Musharraf] who has lost the confidence of his people,” said Obama on Jul 15. “It’s time to strengthen stability by standing up for the aspirations of the Pakistani people.”
He announced his support for a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate this week calling for tripling non-military aid to Pakistan to 7.5 billion US dollars over the next five years.
Increased economic aid is also a central component of Obama’s plan to stabilise Afghanistan, particularly as a means of staving off the potential for further resentment and anger among Afghans at the increased military presence in their country. In the south of the country, the presence of western troops has fueled sympathy for the Taleben and drawn young men into their ranks.
“As time goes on if we fail to manage the expectations of the Afghan people, it starts to seem like we have some sort of ulterior agenda because how could the richest nation on earth deploy all of these soldiers but do so bad on reconstruction,” said Brannen.
Experts have welcomed Obama’s plan to put one billion dollars toward more community-based civil reconstruction and development programmes.
“The best approach is to have effective, well-coordinated, community-based reconstruction and development projects in the provinces and villages along the border,” said Thomas E Gouttierre, dean of international studies and programs and director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska.
Gouttierre, who visits Afghanistan several times a year to monitor reconstruction efforts, said that involving local citizens in rebuilding projects will also reduce the appeal of Taleban militants looking to recruit disaffected Afghanis to their cause.
“We cannot build a great wall of Afghanistan,” he said. “Improved security and more coordination and effective reconstruction efforts that demonstrably improve the quality of living for the individual Afghan and his family offer the only real combination that will work over the short and long term.”
But it remains to be seen whether the American public will back a plan that calls for bringing troops home from Iraq only to send them over to Afghanistan.
Brennan said that for the moment Americans continue to see Afghanistan as a “good war” that is “worth fighting”.
“The bad guys are clearer. The mission is clearer,” he said. “That is where this form of radical Islamist terrorism came from. It is not from the Middle East. It is from the Soviet-Afghan conflict and the Taleban takeover and al-Qaeda’s presence.”
Nevertheless, some analysts contend that more long-term military deployments, increased casualties and foreign aid to a region that still remains largely unfamiliar to most Americans may not play well for an Obama administration back home.
“Most Americans think we won the war [in Afghanistan] in 2001 and it should be behind us,” said Robert Guttman, director of the Center on Politics & Foreign Relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC. “If things get out of hand and we start to lose more and more troops, they will be surprised and you can expect some push back.”
Jennifer Koons is an IWPR reporter in London.