Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Obama's war

I'm more optimistic about how Obama is approaching the Iraq War than he is the Afghanistan War.

Sophie Mühlmann reports for Die Welt pm Kampf gegen die Taliban: Amerikas neue Afghanistan-Strategie der Stärke 18.02.2009. (Fight against the Taliban: America's new Afghanistan strategy of strength).

According to her report, by the end of July Obama's first troop escalation is scheduled to be completed. At that point, there would be 55,000 American soldiers and 32,000 other NATO soldiers there based on current plans. That would be a 50% increase in American troop strength there. Germany has 3600 soldiers there with a current maximum of 4500 authorized. She writes that according to anonymous sources from "diplomatic circles", Angela Merkel's government has agreed to send 600 additional troops, which would leave them 300 below the maximum.

If Obama gets the US troops out of Iraq, he will be seen by everyone but diehard Republicans as having solved a terrible problem created by Cheney and Bush. But now that he's committed himself to escalation in Afghanistan, this one really is going to be "Obama's war" now. And if and when the troops escalation produces wider resistance, as it's likely to do, then Obama will be in a position where de-escalating will look to him dangerously like "retreating" or "surrendering".

Mühlmann also reports that Obama talked to Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday for the first time since Obama took office, to tell him about the troop increase. A Presidential election is scheduled in Afghanistan for August 2009. It sounds to me like Obama's team may have decided to cut Karzai loose. It strikes me as very significant that Obama has made it a point not to speak to Karzai until now. Especially since Obama has identified the Afghanistan War as a priority for his administration. With 38,000 American troops there now according to Mühlmann's account, I find it disturbing that Obama hasn't even talked to Karzai until now.

Juan Cole (Informed Comment 02/18/09) agrees on the 38,000 count and links to McClatchey's report on the escalation,

Obama orders as many as 17,500 troops to Afghanistan by Margaret Talev, Nancy Youssef and Warren Strobel 02/17/09. The McClatchy news service (previously Knight-Ridder), and Youssef and Strobel in particular, distinguished themselves in their coverage of the Iraq War. They report that all that wonderful patriotic bipartisanship in which the Republicans so deeply believed until very recently, seems to have waned. Even with Mr. Bipartisanship himself (if you believe his idolaters in the press corps):

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former prisoner of war and Obama's Republican opponent last year, said that sending more troops was long overdue but that "I believe the president must spell out for the American people what he believes victory in Afghanistan will look like and articulate a coherent strategy for achieving it."
I'm not sure why the "former prisoner of war" identification belongs there, except that McCain himself constantly advertises it and his fan-boys and -girls in the press like to repeat it.

On the surface, this is an entirely legitimate criticism. I actually agree with it. But, as I fully expected, once a Democratic President was in office, Republicans who previously wanted to hear only the "good news" out of Iraq and Afghanistan now have a political stake in highlighting the shortcomings of those war efforts. I wonder if Joe Lieberman will scold his good buddy McCain for criticizing the President in "a time of war".

Supposedly, Obama will come out with his new improved strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in October. But by then, his escalation strategy will have its own dynamic.

Juan Cole especially calls attention to this part of the McClatchey report:

The Marines and soldiers will be deployed to southern Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are expanding to take on the poppy trade there, which the Taliban use to fund it forces and obtain its weapons. Since the Taliban fell in 2001, British and Canadian forces have been in charge of that area, but recently violence there has increased, as has poppy production.

Afghanistan produces two-thirds of the world's heroin from poppies. More than 90 percent of it comes out of Helmand province where the Marines are headed. Currently, the 3rd battalion 8th Marine brigade, also from Camp Lejeune, is in that area.
Yes, it's the "war on drugs" in the Hindukush. Cole:

If this report is true, it is very troubling. There is reason to think that forcible poppy eradication has produced the growing insurgency. Poppies are used to make heroin, and exports of the drug account for over a third of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. But many Afghan farmers are destitute after 30 years of war, and this crop is their one hope of escaping poverty. They grow irate when someone comes in with helicopters and torches to destroy the crop.

There are currently 38,000 US troops in Afghanistan. Last I knew, there were 10,000 under a US command and 18,000 serving under the NATO ISAF command (which has 32,000 non-US NATO troops), which totals 50,000. But given the determination of Canada to pull its troops out within three years, and the flagging commitment of other NATO allies, it could be that the increase of US troops will just offset draw-downs of NATO forces.
There's no question that the "Taliban" (Pashtun guerrillas) are intertwined with the opium trade. But the goals of this war keep expanding. It started out in 2001 to attack, kill and capture as many possible of the group, Osama Bin Laden's Al Qa'ida, that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Now it has expanded to include a counterinsurgency campaign in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now it's expanding even more into the drug war.

I would support a temporary increase in troops if it were part of a clear exit strategy. Increasing the number of troops by 50% is likely to just pull the US deeper and deeper into a war whose mission gets wider and wider.


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