Despite President Obama’s clear commitment to dealing with the conflict in Afghanistan, the lack of any end in sight is worrying, writes Conor Feeney.
The Obama administration has signalled its intention to conduct its foreign policy from the centre with 17,000 extra troops on their way to Afghanistan. The US along with its allies currently has 70,000 troops on active duty. President Obama has declared on many occasions the turbulent country as the ‘central front’ of the war on terrorism.
Although it is clear that a strategy is being drawn up to achieve success there are huge risks for the new regime. Obama understands that the key to success is winning over the hearts and minds of the people and preventing the Taliban, and elements of Al Qaeda, from re-asserting any significant control over the country.
Obama said last month that, “If we don’t win over the hearts and minds of 1.3 billion Muslims in this world it will be difficult to win the war against extremism.” However a recent report by the UN stated that there was a 40 per cent rise in civilian deaths last year. Of the 2,118 estimated civilian deaths, 39 per cent can be attributed to Afghan and coalition forces. Certainly this will have to change if the opinions of the Afghan people are to shift firmly in favour of the international forces.
Obama has emphasised the importance of a strong intercontinental effort in achieving success in Afghanistan whether this contribution be through military, civilian or financial means. Vice-President Joe Biden said this month the West was not winning the war. He indicated the requirement for a much greater combined effort from all participants to re-construct the country. Another major issue in need of resolution is drugs. The narcotics industry in Afghanistan is thriving despite efforts to dismantle poppy plantations and is yet another quagmire which must be overcome if there is to be success.
A key factor in the new administration’s plans for Afghanistan is Pakistan. In recent years US troops have succeeded in forcing Taliban fighters over the border into the northern tribal areas of Pakistan where its army was supposed to flush these militants out. However Pakistan’s inability to do this has resulted in an almost safe haven for the Taliban.
The US has already launched an unknown number of unmanned drone attacks across the Pakistani border. Obama has continued to re-iterate his intentions to end this refuge for the Taliban. This could potentially take the form of manned military incursions into Pakistani territory especially if their army does not take a more aggressive stance in the northern border territories.
Given that the primary focus of the American people is firmly set on the economy and the fact that overall public opinion of Obama is high, the majority support the current strategy in Afghanistan. However if there were to be a sudden upsurge in US troop fatalities the tide of public support could shift quickly.
A number of leftist columnists in the States have suggested the possibility of Afghanistan becoming the equivalent of the Vietnam War. Around 57,000 US troops perished in the near decade long conflict which eclipses the current US fatality toll in Afghanistan of 666. Lyndon Johnson said prior to an escalation of troop deployment in the region that, “Retreat does not bring safety, weakness does not bring peace.” Certainly this sentiment has not changed but the reality on the ground is much different.
Comparisons with the Vietnam War may seem a rather extreme point of view now but if Obama continues to escalate troop levels in Afghanistan it is reasonable although tragic to assume that the death toll will rise. General Petraeus who oversaw the military ‘surge’ in Iraq, widely viewed as a success, has stated that such a strategy in Afghanistan will not work.
Analysts have also heavily criticised suggestions that the administration may talk to the moderate Taliban leadership as pointless because they do exert any significant influence.
The uncertainty surrounding where ‘the end’ will come from is the most worrying factor for President Obama and his administration. The cost of rebuilding the country will be on a substantial scale both human and financial. Although comparisons can be drawn with troop escalations in Vietnam it is far too early to suggest that Afghanistan is heading in the same direction.
For the US a key aspect in winning the war is in ensuring another domestic attack does not originate from the region. Creating a stable democratic Afghanistan is the ultimate aim of the Obama administration but given the general chaos within the Middle East this goal is far easier said than achieved.