Most news organizations across the world were only interested in two facts that came from U.S. President Barack Obama’s war plan speech at West Point. How many troops? For how long?
About half way through the speech the President gave those answers.
“And as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” stated the President. “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.”
You can read the full speech here.
Once that pronouncement was made, reporters and analysts went to work crafting their competing views on whether sending 30,000 more soldiers and Marines was a wise or misguided move. Conservative Washington Post columnist George Will wrote on December 2nd: “The president’s party will not support his new policy, his budget will not accommodate it, our overstretched and worn down military will be hard-pressed to execute it, and Americans’ patience will not be commensurate with Afghanistan’s limitless demands for it. This will not end well.”
Meanwhile, a Chicago Tribune editorial from the same day took the opposite view contending that the President was showing resolve and courage with his troop increase.
What the President did not answer, and what no reporters bothered to ask before writing these pieces, is what will those 30,000 troops be doing?
From all indications, the new strategy calls for American and NATO forces to move mostly into the southern Afghan provinces and into the border region with Pakistan. This will redeploy thousands of U.S. military personnel already in the country into these areas and the 30,000 additional forces will supplement them. The goal is rather simple though anything but a sure thing:
1) The additional combat forces will hit the Taliban and extremists head on, once again driving them from population centers like Kandahar into the rural areas and the mountainous border region with Pakistan.
2) Once driven out of the cities, the new coalition forces will strive to provide training to the Afghan police and Army while protecting the local population from crime and violence. The civilian outreach from the U.S. State Department and NATO nations will then be charged with helping Afghans rebuild schools, roads, wells, markets, and other vital infrastructure.
3) While the bulk of the forces will focus on defending the population, there is no doubt that a smaller number of special operations forces, Marines and Air Force drones will try to pick off high value Taliban and Al Qeada targets on both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border.
While critics claim the U.S. is ramping up it’s war machine, all evidence points to the surge being a defensive measure, not an offensive one. The 30,000 forces will join with other re-deployed troops to defend Afghan population centers instead of going into rural areas and mountain passes to track and kill every extremist.
The President also tried to assure Americas that in 18 months, many of the surge forces will start coming home. Presumably, a well trained and respected Afghan Army will start taking the place of departing U.S. forces. This is a huge presumption, predicated on the assumption that the Afghan Army and police can grow quickly and be trained to a sufficient level. It is also predicated on the idea that the Taliban will be so badly damaged that the coalition will not need nearly as many troops to provide protection to civilians with a weakened, anemic enemy being their main threat.
It will take many months to get all the surge forces in place along with the re-deployed troops already in Afghanistan. Once in place and combat begins, the U.S. and NATO forces will only have 6-9 months to achieve their objectives before President Obama’s July 2011 deadline for withdrawing forces comes up. Will this be enough time to turn the tide and get infrastructure projects off the ground?
President Obama’s strategy also assumes that Pakistan will act against Al Qeada within their borders with more fervor. This may be the biggest assumption of all. Without this element, any American gains could be swiftly lost when the extremists return to Afghanistan from the mountains of the border.
Oh, and there is that issue of a corrupt government running Afghanistan from Kabul. Ultimately, the best hope for Afghanistan is to make it more like Pakistan…though this is definitely not ideal. Pakistan has been racked by corruption for many years, but their Army is a widely respected institution. The Army is respected so much, that they were able to take over the government under General Pervez Musharraf. While the Army is no longer in charge of Pakistani politics, it is still the most important institution of government in the country. Afghanistan needs an Army like that. A large, strong, disciplined, and respected force that can rise above the corrupt politics and give Afghan civilians reason to trust and hope in one of their own institutions. Obama is hoping the U.S. and NATO and build that Army fast.
Thirty thousand more troops, first withdraws of those troops in 18 months. Seems like a simple headline. However, as we have all come to discover in the past 8 years of war, nothing regarding Afghanistan is that simple.