Monday, December 07, 2009

The Final Decision for the Surge in Afghanistan

President Barack Obama has made a long awaited decision to increase the troop level in Afghanistan to defeat Taliban and Al Qaeda. In a previous post, I mentioned that President Barack Obama was cautious to accept the strategic assessment by General Stanley McChrystal. Armed forces leaders, notably, Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff; General David Petraeus, Head of the US Central Command; and Admiral James Stavridis, Supreme Commander of NATO; talked with General McChrystal to urge President Obama to accept the strategic assessment. Obama faced a pressure from an ally. British Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth criticized Obama for delaying the surge, which led to more casualties among British soldiers. It was unprecedented that a British cabinet minister blames the US President in public (Daily Telegraph; “Bob Ainsworth criticises Barack Obama over Afghanistan”; 25 November 2009). Also, Republicans led by Senator John McCain had been demanding the President to take vital actions to improve security in Afghanistan (“The decider”; Economist; November 26, 2009).

Finally, President Obama decided to send additional troops to Afghanistan. Also, Obama struck a balance to soothe domestic antipathy to this long war. In his speech at West Point on December 1, Obama said that the US forces would begin to withdraw in 18 month. Quite interestingly, this is before his re-election campaign. While placating doves at home, Obama reminded the American public of 9-11 terrorist attack and the fear of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into terrorists’ hands (“Obama’s War”; Economist, December 2, 2009).

In the video on the White House web page, President Obama articulates three points to defeat insurgents and never allow them build safe havens to attack the United States and its allies. They are strengthening Afghan security forces, civil life assistance, and partnership with Pakistan. The President has made it clear that the US led coalition will transfer responsibility to the Afghan government and security forces, after succeeding in the mission to defeat Taliban and Al Qaeda in “18 months” (“President Obama’s Afghanistan Plan in 4 Minutes”; December 1, 2009).

Contrary to the presidential election, Obama draws more support from hawks than doves, regarding the Afghan War. William Kristol, Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, and Frederick Kagan, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, applaud the decision to boost the troop level in Afghanistan. Though President Obama’s surge of 30,000 falls short of General McChrystal’s request of 40,000, and setting the schedule for withdrawal is inappropriate, both authors argue that General McChrystal will have sufficient forces to defeat insurgents. The surge will be of much help for British and Canadian forces in Helmand and Kandahar. Also, they point out that economic assistance is aimed at poverty, not insurgents. Therefore, William Kristol and Frederick Kagan call for a nationwide support for the Afghan mission, although they disagree to the Obama administration’s policy on Iran, Russia, China, and defense budgets (“Support the President”; Weekly Standard; December 14, 2009).

NATO allies welcomed the surge, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was emboldened to hear pledges for 7,000 extra troops from European members, at the foreign ministers meeting in Brussels (“NATO allies pledge 7,000 more troops for Afghanistan mission”; Washington Post, December 5, 2009). While Britain, Italy, Poland, and Georgia send additional forces, France and Germany declined to join the surge (“Allies Help McChrystal Reach Troop Goal”; Wall Street Journal; December 7, 2009).

President Obama’s decision shall be welcomed, but there are some problems. In the West Point Speech, Obama mentioned the timetable for withdrawal. However, General McChrystal in Afghanistan is not Lord Mountbatten in India. The coalition forces still face formidable enemies. In a previous post, I talked of the panel discussion by Frederick Kagan and Jack Kean at the AEI. General Kean said that the surge in Iraq achieved success because the US forces showed firm willingness for continual commitment there. In addition, isolationism is on the rise in the United States (“U.S. isolationism at a 40-year high”; FP Passport; December 3, 2009). These problems may impose some constraints on the War in Afghanistan.

The surge worked in Iraq. As Professor Niall Ferguson of Harvard University often mentions, it is psychological stamina that matters. The American public should remember the vital point that 9-11 terrorists came from their safe haven in Afghanistan. It is a necessary war that must be won.

See “Fact Sheet: The Way Forward in Afghanistan” by the White House.