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17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan

Fulfilling a campaign plan and meeting widespread expectation, President Obama has decided to send about 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, Politico reports.

Obama cited a direct threat to the United States from Al Qaeda as part of the rationale for his decision.

“The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan demands urgent attention and swift action,” Obama said, announcing the deployment in a written statement. “The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda supports the insurgency and threatens America from its safe haven along the Pakistani border.”

Obama said he approved a request from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to deploy a Marine Expeditionary Brigade later this spring, and an Army Stryker Brigade and the support forces later this summer. He said the upcoming drawdown in Iraq allows him to move more troops into Afghanistan.

Obama has announced a 60-day review of his Afghanistan policy but had to order up these forces sooner because units need to train for their new mission, and commanders want them in place ahead of the traditional fighting season as the weather improves.

This development should come as a surprise to no-one. The security situation in Afghanistan has been going downhill for some time, with the New York Times reporting a40% jump in civilian casualties in 2008. This news follows fast on (but is almost certainly not in reaction to) an opinion piece written today by Major General Jim Molan of Australia, who was chief of operations of the multinational force in Iraq in 2004-05, in which he calls for a major increase in the size of the NATO force in Afghanistan.

From that piece:

The Afghanistan insurgency is a complex problem that needs a comprehensive military and non-military approach within and outside of Afghanistan, but creating a basic level of security must be the first step.

If I was asked to stabilise Uruzgan province, the minimum that I would request would be 6000 effective foreign troops.

A foreign force of such a size could protect itself, protect people and reconstructed infrastructure, mentor the Afghanistan security forces, and operate offensively against our opponents. We could then win in Uruzgan and contribute to winning in Afghanistan.

But the Dutch and Australian forces in Uruzgan now are less than half this total, and the security situation is proportionately bleak.

I would applaud an increase in Australian troops to about 2000 this year. Even a limited increase in security in Uruzgan would help a deserving people in a struggle that is important for Australia. And an Australian increase now would not remove the pressure on NATO nations to do more, which will come from the US.

Whether we like it or not, we have committed to Afghanistan and withdrawal does not appear to be an option. The only workable strategy is to win, and winning is still possible.

It has yet to be seen whether the rest of Australia and the NATO allies will agree with that assessment. It also bears noting that while the US and NATO seem to be ramping up the fight in Afghanistan, the government of Pakistan has signed a truce with Taliban fighters in their own country, which the New York Times describes as “effectively conceding the area as a Taliban sanctuary and suspending a faltering effort by the army to crush the insurgents.” That development is more a recognition of reality than an ideological coming together between the two groups, but does rather powerfully demonstrate that Afghanistan’s problems extend beyond its borders.

With the continuing stabilization of Iraq, Afghanistan now looms as the first major foreign policy challenge for the Obama administration. On this issue the President can either break or confirm the characterization of him as a foreign-policy lightweight, and either gain or lose a lot of respect in the process, both at home and abroad. Either way, for the moment, this is the region to watch.

—Oliver Sherouse, Trinity ’09

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