US troops in Afghanistan: For the Sake of My Friends?
by Ramtanu Maitra on 25 Sep 2009 2 Comments

Following his meeting with the visiting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Sep.15, US President Barack Obama told newspersons that there is no “immediate decision pending” on more troops to Afghanistan. When asked if US and NATO forces are winning the war, the president offered no direct response. “My determination is to get this right,” he said. “You don’t make determinations about resources, and certainly you don’t make determinations about sending young men and women into battle, without having absolute clarity about what the strategy’s going to be.”

While it is somewhat depressing, and altogether puzzling, to the American people that even eight years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the person at the helm, fortified with a government machinery of great substance, does not yet have “absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be”, it is also revealing that President Obama chose not to answer the question whether US and NATO troops are winning the war. The reality is that the US and NATO troops are losing ground in Afghanistan quite rapidly, but the president finds it “tactically wrong” to admit that. Hence, he maintained silence.

Can hide but cannot run

Washington is under increasing pressure because of the way the war in Afghanistan is progressing. President Obama wants to avoid the issue as long he is allowed to do so. But, there is no question that pressure is mounting and the White House cannot obfuscate the issue for too long.

In essence, President Obama will have to sort out a number of issues before making a decision on what he should do. To begin with, he will have to face the fundamental question: Is this war winnable, and if it is, what defines the “win.”  Alternately, if President Obama decides that the war is not winnable only because a “win” cannot be defined, he will have to take immediate steps to wind down engagements in Afghanistan. This will not only mean working out a plan and a timetable to bring 100,000-plus troops out of Afghanistan, but unwinding as well the vast investment that the United States is planning in Pakistan. In addition, President will need to address the thorny issues of al-Qaeda and Taliban unless he chooses to lose his credibility to the American people in its entirety. It is highly unlikely that the president will identify the Afghan war as “unwinnable.”

On the other hand, what  President Obama is expected to opt for is what President Lyndon B. Johnson had opted for about four decades ago when he, guided  and pushed by those who had their hands on the ground, identified the war in Vietnam not only a war of necessity, but a winnable war as well. This time around, there is a wee bit of difference, because the Vietnam scenario will be projected by many as an abject lesson why not to get involved in a land war in Asia. In order to weaken those critics, President Obama may choose not to order large troop infusion in one go. He may decide to dribble in troops in small numbers in each consignment than what late-President Johnson did in Vietnam, but it is almost a certainty that he will introduce more troops in Afghanistan to fight this war and pledge to win it.

However, President Obama will face one major obstacle that President Johnson did not. United States is now bankrupt and the unemployment in the United States is growing while the dollar is falling. American consumers are indebted up to their neck and the nation is under an economic depression. Under the circumstances, it is only natural that the US Congress, despite enjoying a substantial Democratic Party majority in both the House and the Senate, will question the president, a fellow Democrat, why is he keen to spend more borrowed money to fight  a war without  possessing an “absolute clarity about what the strategy’s going to be.” Many congressmen and senators have not spoken out against a troop surge in Afghanistan, but they will when President Obama chooses to make that decision.

On Afghanistan, what is sitting on the President’s table is the proposal of additional troop introduction. The decision to introduce more troops would trigger discussions urging the president to answer how many troops, and for how long these troops would remain in Afghanistan. It is evident that the White House will virtually ignore the second part of the question by pointing out that the troops will be there till the war is won. On the other hand, President is already confronted with the first part of the question and he is taking his time to decide on it.

How many more troops

On Sep.17   Fox News reported that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, is privately requesting between 30,000 and 40,000 more troops, a request that has produced “sticker shock” and “huge resistance” among key lawmakers, sources told Fox News. As of now, 68,000 US troops are in Afghanistan, in addition to about 35,000 NATO troops. Another 21,000 US troops are scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan before this year draws to an end.

Reports indicate that congressional liberals who led the charge against the Iraq war are starting to turn their attention to Afghanistan, putting pressure on the Obama administration to scale back even as it prepares to consider a likely request to increase US troop presence. Members of the “Out of Iraq” caucus are organizing into a new group whose mission will be to question the military surge in the country President Obama has deemed critical to the fight against terrorism. “He will hear from us,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., a founding member of the Iraq caucus.

At the same time, many at the highest level of the US military consider introduction of a much smaller number of troops. For instance, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sep.15 that the US war in Afghanistan “probably needs more forces” and sought to reassure lawmakers skeptical of sending additional troops that commanders were devising new tactics that would lead to victory over a resurgent Taliban.

Adm. Mullen said that 2,000 to 4,000 additional military trainers from the United States and its NATO partners will be needed to “jump-start” the expansion of Afghan security forces and strongly suggested that more US combat troops will be required to provide security in the short term. “A properly resourced counter-insurgency probably needs more forces,” Mullen said on that occasion.

On Sep 9, US Sen. Carl Levin, who was recently in Afghanistan to see how the war was going, said he is not advocating an exit strategy, but a smarter one. Levin said his strong opposition to sending in more combat troops is rooted in the belief that Afghans want to - and have to - win the war against the Taliban. “If a majority of the country wanted to pull out tomorrow, I would say no,” he said. “It’s a national security issue... There can be success in Afghanistan, but if there’s going to be success, it’s going to be an Afghan success.” Sen. Levin also made clear that he does not see a consensus at the Pentagon on the number of troops and does not believe Obama, who bolstered US forces earlier this year, is anywhere near deciding the future of US strategy.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan

It is evident that the Afghan war has not yet become a discussion subject among most Americans. People are confused about the developments, but have not spoken out loudly yet. A Gallup Poll conducted in late August and early September found that the percentage of Americans saying the Afghanistan struggle is going badly has soared to 61% from 43% in early July.

August was the deadliest month yet in Afghanistan for US troops, with more than 50 killed. An ABC News/Washington Post poll last month showed that a majority of the public - 51% - now believe the Afghanistan war was not worth fighting. Support for Obama’s handling of the conflict remains strong. Still, the public-opinion trends signal problems for President Obama, who made Afghanistan his signature foreign-policy focus during last year’s campaign.

Street demonstrations against Afghan war have remained very small and pose no threat to President’s decision-making process. Recently, at a gathering near Canton, Ohio, protesting against President Obama-led health care reform bill at the time it was debated in the US Congress, posters against the Afghan war were visible. Beyond that, a column in the mainstream media by Georg Will in early September brought the critics and commentators out of the closet. In his column, Time to Get out of Afghanistan, on Sep1 in the Washington Post, Will said “…Counterinsurgency theory concerning the time and the ratio of forces required to protect the population indicates that, nationwide, Afghanistan would need hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, perhaps for a decade or more. That is inconceivable.

“So, instead, forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

“Genius said de Gaulle, recalling Bismarck’s decision to halt German forces short of Paris in 1870, sometimes consists of knowing when to stop…”

US has an alibi why not to withdraw

Withdrawal from Afghanistan is not really under discussion in Washington. But, it is a certainty that such a simmering may begin quite soon. At that point in time, the US alibi could be that departure from Afghanistan will ensure another takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. Such a departure will also pose a serious existential threat to the territorial integrity of Pakistan. And, such a departure will allow Osama bin Laden and his ilk a massive victory which would endanger the region, if not the world. 

These are a pretty powerful arguments and it is now almost a certainty that those statements from Washington will be endorsed by major powers in the region. For instance, on Sep14, answering a question at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, India’s newly-appointed Ambassador to the United States, Meera Shankar said India would like the United States to stay in Afghanistan as long as necessary to ensure peace and stability in that country.

While New Delhi has never come out as clearly as Ambassador Meera Shankar on that occasion, nonetheless India’s view about the presence of such a large number of troops in Afghanistan, the rationale to support US troops presence in Afghanistan is not difficult to follow listening to the media chatter in that country.

To begin with, since the retreat of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, India has supported and stayed in regular contact with the late Tajik Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, a cynosure to the Pakistani military establishment. Following the rise of the anti-India Taliban in Afghanistan, a handmaiden of the Saudis and Pakistani ISI, India clung dearly to what later became the Northern Alliance – an alliance of Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and other non-Pashtun minorities of Afghanistan.

Therefore, New Delhi fears that if the United States leaves Afghanistan, Pakistan will move in again bringing yet another anti-India group to power in Kabul. India has spent quite a bit of money in Afghanistan, enjoys a significant support base inside Afghanistan and wants to have a prominent presence in Central Asia. If the United States leaves the place “unresolved”, whatever that is supposed to mean to New Delhi, India will lose out badly.

Secondly, there are many among Indian policymaking circles who “believe” that US presence in Afghanistan will force the Pakistani military-goaded jihadis to remain subdued in their anti-India activities. The attacks on a Mumbai train in 2005 and on Mumbai hotels in Nov. 2008 indicate that such a “belief” is not necessarily valid. On the other hand, others in India justify the necessity of a strong and long US troop presence in Afghanistan, citing the American pressure exerted on the Pakistani establishment to dismantle Pakistan’s Jihad Inc.

With the intent not to disappoint the “believers”, it must be pointed out that Washington is fighting in Afghanistan not for India, or Russia or China. Washington is fighting this war because of its own geopolitical interest and that geopolitical interest may, or may not, be agreeable to New Delhi in the larger context of events and over a long period of time. It is also to be noted that no matter how tough Washington acts against Pakistan, it would fully support maintaining a very strong Pakistani military. This is because every administration in Washington has come to accept that Pakistan will remain stable, and also a friend of the United States, if its military remains strong.

The Russian dichotomy

The Russia of Vladimir Putin, or Sergei Medvedev, does not relish the thought of the US troop leaving Afghanistan, either. But it is a much more complex decision to spell out for Moscow. In May, Dmitry Shlapentokh, an analyst with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (CACI) pointed out in his article, Russian Thinking on America’s Role in Afghanistan, that “on the one hand, Moscow signalled that it is quite concerned with the possibility of a US debacle and wishes the Americans to win the war. On the other hand, the very fact that the US publicly entertained the idea of finding a friendly Taliban leader ready for compromise was displeasing.”

Add to this the Russian analyst, Sergey Mikheev’s Sep.7  statement when he said “the major purpose of the Pentagon moving into Afghanistan and of NATO waging its first war outside of Europe was to exert influence on, and domination over, a vast region of South and Central Asia that has brought Western military forces – troops, warplanes, surveillance capabilities – to the borders of China, Iran and Russia, it becomes difficult to assess whether Moscow  wholeheartedly seeks US success in Afghanistan, or not. Russia’s persuasion of Kyrgyzstan to close Manas air base created additional problems for the US. All of this indicates that cooperation between the US and Russia in Afghanistan is complex.”

In the final analysis, Russia does want the US to stay in Afghanistan and stabilize the country. Russia has already agreed to provide free passage for NATO supplies to Afghanistan, seeing the war as a danger to both Russia and the East.

Russia fears about the possibility of a deal between the US and Taliban, and in relation to this a sharp turn in US foreign policy, indicate a continuous fear of instability both in Central Asia and Russia proper. Russia is struggling with its north Caucasian instability brought about by the Saudi-British combination pushed via the Wahabis. Shlapentokh says the Russian elite entertain a lingering fear that a US debacle could also lead to a new realignment in the Middle East from Iran to Afghanistan, where any solutions would come at Russia’s expense. “And these feelings have led to an increasingly muddled Russian policy towards Afghanistan and the US presence in the country,” Shlapentokh concludes.

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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