Obama overhauls US Afghan strategy
The Iraq-style troop surge is one part of a plan that hopes to bring stability through civilian know-how and a fresh Pakistan policy.
Since the United States invaded Iraq six years ago, its attention, effort, and military know-how has tilted toward the Gulf. Perhaps as soon as Friday, President Obama is expected to shift that focus, announcing a new strategy for Afghanistan and the neighbor with which it is entwined, Pakistan.Skip to next paragraph
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It is an announcement with echoes of the US "surge" in Iraq, when America increased its commitment to Iraq and turned to a new strategy that prioritized protecting Iraqis as much as killing terrorists. In the broadest terms, plans for Afghanistan will be along the same lines.
Yet the challenges presented by Afghanistan are an order of magnitude greater than they were in Iraq – involving a state with virtually no rule of law, a government rife with opium-fueled corruption, and an insurgency spanning two nations and entrenched in some of the world's most inhospitable terrain.
"Unlike Iraq and some of the other problems, this is an area where I've been somewhat uncertain in my own mind what the right path forward is," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently.
Given the scope of the task ahead – and the fact that priorities in Afghanistan have been long delayed by America's emphasis on Iraq – some in Washington are preaching patience.
"Whatever [the plan] is, it's going to be long-term," says one Republican staffer on Capitol Hill who was not authorized to speak with the media. "We're going to be spending money on Afghanistan for a long time."
Mr. Obama's plan is the culmination of input from various quarters of government, some of which continue to have fundamental differences over the ultimate goals for Afghanistan, just days before Obama is to announce the way ahead. Whether he will launch the plan with a formal announcement or simply begin its implementation more quietly was not clear Wednesday morning. Several media reports suggested that he could unveil the strategy Friday. Yet the broad brush strokes of the plan are already clear.
The 17,000 American troops Obama has promised for Afghanistan are expected to be crucial in bringing some measure of stability to the south, where British and Canadian forces have not been able to dislodge the Taliban from vast swaths of territory.
Unlike Iraq, where the insurgency was largely confined to urban areas, the insurgency in Afghanistan resides in wide-open, rural areas, posing a challenge to a small international force that has long been overstretched. Gen. David McKiernan has declared the south a "stalemate."
Yet the insurgency there is relatively isolated, according to NATO officials, who say that nearly three-quarters of the terrorist activities occur in only 5 percent of the country's more than 360 districts.
Once security is established in areas, the US and NATO may be able to reconcile with some elements of the insurgency – typically low-level insurgents who are driven more by economic realities than ideology – in a way that produces a similar outcome as that in Iraq, says a top official who could speak to the media only on condition of anonymity.
As with the Iraq surge, an increase of troops is seen as being only one element of the new Afghan strategy – and perhaps not the most important.