A year and a half for a new Afghan war

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On December 1, President Obama announced not only a troop surge in Afghanistan (around 30,000 to be rapidly deployed), but also a peak in the intensity of the effort on the ground – including more covert operations in Pakistani territory. The peak will be followed by a scheduled drawdown starting in mid-2011.

There is also a “soft power” leg in the new policy package: expanded economic development assistance and an explicit readiness to selectively engage components of the Taliban constellation in reconciliation programs. The presidential speech carefully used the word “surge” only in the context of “civilian surge”.

However, the main significance of the new phase is that President Obama has finally decided to accept full political responsibility for a major expansion of the mission originally launched by G.W. Bush in late 2001.

In part, this process can be defined as a form of further “Americanization” of the mission, although Washington is going to great lengths to avoid such a scenario by emphasizing the continuing presence of multinational forces from over forty countries. The NATO front is still holding, and this is no minor accomplishment.

Yet, as NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen indicated in his official (under)statement, “The United States' contribution to the NATO-led mission has always been substantial; it is now even more important”. The aggregate military (and financial) effort will be even more lopsided than it has been so far, with around 100,000 US troops soon deployed and less than 40,000 from all the European countries combined.

Partly as a consequence, one factor that will become increasingly evident is the very different perceptions on the two sides of the Atlantic. ISAF is and remains a rather traditional military commitment for the Europeans, since they conceive it as a stabilization operation (however dangerous and complex) and a support mission – i.e. supporting a much wider, if so far ill-defined, US effort.

From a European perspective – even in the UK – the limited surge in troop levels is being presented, or at least discussed, as essentially a combination of “more security for better reconstruction” and improved “force protection”. After all, no European government has ever made a strong case for counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, but recently the insurgency threat is coming to us on the ground – whether or not European troops act more aggressively. In any case, it is clearly the exit strategy that makes it possible for at least some of America’s allies to raise the stakes temporarily: the Afghan mission has certainly not become less unpopular since Obama entered the White House. The deal that is being struck at NATO thus has a rather precise time limit, but even so it rests on shaky ground, as transatlantic divergence is broad indeed. A matter-of-fact comment by EU Commission President Barroso in early November is symptomatic, "Honestly, in Europe there is not great enthusiasm for sending more troops to Afghanistan. That is the public opinion situation in Europe”. The statement is revealing because it seems to miss the point of any troop increase, which does not require “enthusiasm” for a wider or more intense war effort, but rather some sense of the goal being pursued through the increase. The latter is precisely what is absent in the European debate.

To a majority of Americans, instead, the new deployments to Afghanistan clearly signal a “new war” – borrowing a phrase from CNN senior political analyst William Schneider, who spoke at a recent Aspen Italia conference. It is new because the early phase of the conflict was a rapid US-led expeditionary operation to smash the Taliban; that was only partly successful, but in any case since 2003 Iraq got almost all the attention – and the bulk of the resources.

Obama has now changed the equation, by setting the goal of – somehow – finishing the job by mid-2011, i.e. either winning the war on the ground unequivocally or declaring victory and leaving Afghanistan to itself.

The fact that the new approach incorporates a well-defined deadline means that the effort will be concentrated and available resources will be heavily focused on a few crucial objectives. At least, so the reasoning goes in Washington.

Criticism of Obama’s decision – from both the left and the right of the US political spectrum – is legitimate and mostly reasonable given the cost of escalation, but an American surge had become a precondition for any acceptable outcome, although unfortunately it cannot guarantee it. Unless, of course, one assumes that unconditional withdrawal would have virtually no political cost for the US – or the coalition for that matter. The reality is that packing up without achieving more would indeed be costly to American credibility across a very large and important region, as Afghanistan is obviously intertwined with Pakistan, which in turn may also be crucial to relations between China and India, and so on. You do not have to believe in a revised version of the old “domino theory” to realize that Afghanistan is a bigger problem than the territory bearing that name: the AfPak border zone is, in Obama’s words, “the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda”.

In light of such enduring threat, the new 18-month campaign may well be described as a war of necessity, but how to wage this war is certainly a matter of choice. And here, for all the differences with the Iraqi surge (especially the even weaker central government in Kabul and the paucity of large cities), the basic choice is clearly similar, “target the insurgency and secure key population centers”, Obama said, while training and partnering with Afghan forces.

In this context, it is also important to note what President Obama said the US is not going to do: there will not be “an open-ended escalation of our war effort – one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interest”. Amid the many uncertainties of the current policy, such lucid statement stands out: it is a balanced and realistic assessment of the extent to which the country is actually behind the new military and diplomatic effort, reflecting a crucial lesson learned from the history of past conflicts. On this count at least, the Obama administration is playing safe and, we should all hope, is bringing to bear all of America’s “smart power”.

Further reading
 Nella missione in Afghanistan si giocano ruolo e futuro della Nato, Marta Dassù, Corriere della Sera, 24/09/2009