With US troop increase, is the Afghanistan war now America's war?

The 7,000 additional troops that 25 NATO countries have committed to the conflict help the Obama administration make the case that the Afghanistan war is an international effort.

When the escalation of the war in Afghanistan reaches its peak in about six months, perhaps 140,000 international troops will be on Afghan soil: about 100,000 of them American, the rest from NATO and other countries.

Does that make Afghanistan an American war?

President Obama's plans to send 30,000 more US troops led some foreign-policy experts to conclude just that. Not only is this Mr. Obama's war, they say, but it is now firmly America's war as well.

But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton went to Brussels Friday to debunk that thinking by welcoming additional NATO commitments to the war, while encouraging the alliance's 28 member countries to do even more. "This is our fight, together, and we must finish it together," she told assembled NATO foreign ministers.

The 7,000 additional troops that 25 NATO countries have committed to sending should help Secretary Clinton and others in the administration make the case that Afghanistan is an international effort. And some military experts agree that it is wrong to conclude from the numbers that this is America's war.

"This was never just America's war," says William Durch, an expert in peacekeeping operations at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. "Unlike Iraq, it really has been an international effort, and I think the response from NATO is extremely encouraging, especially considering the casualties they have been taking in Afghanistan this year."

The number of forces that European countries are pledging offers a measure of how committed those countries are when the countries' deployable forces are taken into consideration, he adds. "They really don't have that much," Mr. Durch says, "so if they are adding 7,000 to the 32,000 they already have there, this is actually a very large fraction of what they are capable of deploying."

The new strategy announced by Obama, others note, means that more Afghans, particularly in the security forces, are going to be working, training, fighting, and otherwise coming into contact with more foreigners – but not necessarily Americans.

"Now, every single Afghan Army and police formation is going to have a NATO sister unit that [it] is going to train with, live with or live near, practice with, deploy with, fight with, patrol with," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "And this is just a huge, huge change and enormously beneficial on so many fronts," he said, speaking at a recent briefing at Brookings.

Still, others say, the reality is that the great majority of the units that Afghans pair with are going to be American. The evolution of US and other NATO forces can lead to no other conclusion than this becoming increasingly an American war.

"Just look at the numbers," said Bruce Riedel, a South Asia expert, formerly with the Central Intelligence Agency, who co-chaired Obama's initial review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy last winter. "When the president came into office, there were roughly 30,000 American troops and 30,000 NATO and non-NATO ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] troops.... The ratio has now gone to 30,000 NATO/non-NATO, 70,000 Americans. It's now going to go to 100,000 [to] 105,000 Americans and maybe [32,000 or] 33,000 NATO," said Mr. Riedel, now a senior fellow in foreign policy at Brookings. His remarks were also part of the recent Brookings briefing.

"So far, no one else is standing in the room putting their arm up and saying, 'Call on me, coach, I want to play.' It's more and more an American mission," he added. "But I don't think the president has many alternatives."

The numbers don't tell the full story, counters Durch of the Stimson Center. If anything, he says, the Afghanistan war was most American at the outset, when the United States set about routing the Taliban from power and before American attention shifted to Iraq.

"Go back to the initial years, and that's when we did not want peacekeepers. The Bush administration really didn't want ISAF underfoot," he says.

In contrast to that, he says, the Obama administration is seeking a significant uptick in NATO forces.

Durch acknowledges that individual country "caveats" – such as Turkey's refusal to engage its troops in combat with other Muslims – leave questions about "what countries will [be allowed] to fully contribute." But, he says, the NATO pledges "still represent an international vote of confidence in the president's strategy and the Obama administration."


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