COMMENTARY
 
Barack Obama's Mission Afghanistan
Weekly Pulse
July 25-31, 2008
Barack Obama, the US Democratic presidential candidate, has more than once stated that if elected he will make the war in Afghanistan his administration's top most priority, while threatening to bomb suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan's tribal areas. During his visit to Afghanistan, he has reiterated the same intention; however, softening his position on Pakistan.

In a CBS television interview from Kabul on Sunday, Obama said that instead of sending US troops into Fata, he will work with the Pakistani government to root out terrorist camps from the area. Asked if he would consider unilateral US action against Pakistan, if the Pakistanis refused to take out known terrorist hideouts, Mr Obama said: “I will push Pakistan very hard to make sure that we go after those training camps. I think it’s absolutely vital to the security interests of both the United States and Pakistan…what we would like is to see the Pakistani government take out those training camps.”

Retracting Remarks

Obama said, his previous remarks about taking direct military action were "misunderstood." “What I’ve said is that if we had actionable intelligence against high-value Al Qaeda targets, and the Pakistani government was unwilling to go after those targets, that we should. My hope is that it doesn’t come to that — that in fact, the Pakistan government would recognize that if we had Osama bin Laden in our sights that we should fire or we should capture him.”

Interestingly, while Obama has softened his stand vis-à-vis Pakistan, officials of the Bush administration have not. For instance, in a recent interview, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen warned that the cross-border attacks from Pakistan’s tribal belt was affecting the US ability to move forward in Afghanistan. He insisted that Pakistan’s tribal areas had safe havens “for foreign fighters, for Al Qaeda, for Taliban and the insurgents that are now freely — much more freely able to come across the borders.” "We have to understand that the situation is precarious and urgent, and I believe this has to be the central focus, the central front, in the battle against terrorism."

Earlier on Obama said, the U.S. needs to start planning now to send in more troops. He said, if elected president, his administration would send two brigades—or about 7,000 troops—to Afghanistan to help counter a resurgent Taliban.

Afghanistan's Priority

The Bush administration is already in the process of sending additional 3,000 troops to Afghanistan, and the Centcom is working out a comprehensive plan to train regional forces, including Pakistan's, for counter-insurgency operations. Even Obama's Republican contender John McCain supports sending more US troops to Afghanistan. Earlier this month, he called for the addition of at least three more brigades—about 3,500 personnel in each—in Afghanistan.

NATO has more than 53,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. The U.S. has more than 19,000 soldiers under NATO command and about 16,000 in an American-led counterterrorism force. The U.S. has about 150,000 troops in Iraq. Coalition deaths in Afghanistan have exceeded US fatalities in Iraq for the past two months, culminating in the death of nine US soldiers on July 13 in the deadliest insurgent attack for three years.

So, as far as the Bush administration and the Republican candidate for presidency are concerned, Afghanistan has emerged as their priority as well. The difference with Obama is that his entire election campaign has steadfastly projected Afghanistan to be the top most foreign policy priority of his administration.

Obama's Stance

For instance, in a major foreign policy speech on July 15, before flying to Afghanistan, he asked members of his audience today to imagine what might have been done after the Sept. 11 attacks, when much of the world was united in support of the U.S. "Instead, we've lost thousands of lives, spent nearly a trillion dollars, alienated allies, neglected emerging threats -- all in the cause of fighting a war for well over five years in a country that had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks."

He continued, "I want to use all elements of American power to keep us safe and prosperous and free,". He said, ``I intend to pursue a tough, smart and principled national security strategy, one that recognizes that we have interests beyond Baghdad, in Kandahar and Karachi, in Tokyo and London, in Beijing and Berlin. "

In a sense, it is good that both US Presidential contenders intend to make the War on Terror as the number one priority in US foreign policy, and that the Bush administration has already started taking important steps for the purpose. But, then again, all of them seem to emphasize, with a bit of exception in the case of McCain, the value of exercising military option more vigorously is a solution to the Afghan problem.

In the case of Pakistan's tribal areas, the Republican contender has, for instance, argued that empowering local Pashtun tribesmen and turning them against foreign elements hiding out there can prevent the regrouping of al-Qaeda and pro-Taliban forces and their infiltration into Afghanistan.

As for Obama, until now, probably due to his lack of understanding the complicated ground reality, continues to see a solution to Afghanistan's war in military terms only, a stance which is no different than that of Bush's neo-conservative officials. However, just as we have seen sanity prevailing in his attitude towards Pakistan, we can expect him to be more rational in tacking Afghanistan's intricate problem through a host of economic, political and security measures when, and if, he takes over the White House.

Access column at weeklypulse.org