Obama’s Moment of Truth
Weekly Pulse
November 13-19, 2009
US President Barack Obama had postponed his decision on whether to undertake another surge of US troops in Afghanistan, as requested by General Stanely McChrystal, the commander of US and NATO/ISAF forces in Afghanistan, until the Afghan presidential election was over and a new government was in place in Kabul. Now that the crisis generated by the outcome of the Afghan election is largely over, with a controversial re-election of President Hamid Karzai, President Obama will have to make this crucial decision, as soon as he finishes his Asian tour later this month.

The Afghan election has not produced the outcome the Unites States and its international partners in the Afghan war expected: a more popular leadership and a more stable government. Despite this, since the challenge from Taliban-led insurgents to US, NATO and Afghan forces has become graver overtime, especially after the start of the Helmand offensive in July—resulting in ever greater US and British troop casualties—the United States, Britain and other NATO countries are left with no choice but to increase the level of their respective troops in Afghanistan, especialy for combat operations.

The New Strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan (Af-Pak) that President Obama had announced on March 27, and which was based on the Report of the Inter-Agency Group chaired by his advisor Bruce Riedel, supported deploying more US troops and military trainers in Afghanistan. Since then, the debate within the Obama Administration has been essentially over how many more troops to deploy and for which operational requirement of the US counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan.

An Old Commitment

During his election campaign, Mr. Obama had declared to contribute 7,000 more troops to the Afghan mission. However, upon assuming office and only a week after ordering the Inter-Agency review of the Af-Pak strategy, on February 17, President Obama ordered the dispatch of 17,000 more US combat troops to Afghanistan. An earlier reassessment of the US policy towards Afghanistan by General David Petraeus—the head of US Central Command, whose counter-insurgency doctrine turned the tide in the Iraq war—had called for additional troops to be sent to Afghanistan, beyond the 17,000 Mr. Obama ordered.

In his March 27 speech unveiling the Af-Pak strategy, President Obama, white stating the core US goal in the region “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, had sent a message to “the terrorists who oppose us:” We will defeat you.” For the purpose, the Obama Administration aims to employ “all elements of international power—diplomatic, informational, military and economic—still the use of force is perceived by it to be absolutely essential to reverse the growing insurgency of Taliban and other terrorist groups allied with al-Qaeda.

The fact that adding 17,000 more US combat troops to the Afghan theatre meant taking the battle to the enemy, became aptly clear when US and British troops launched Operation Khanjar (Thrust of the Sword) in July in the Helmand Province where, over the past two years, Taliban had been regrouping and regaining power.

Obviously, the United States expects Pakistan to do the same in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, which, in its view, act as a safe haven for al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies to fuel Afghan insurgency and conduct international terrorism. However, while Pakistan has launched its own resolute counter-insurgency campaign in the region, the US drone attacks have likewise increased in scope and regularity in Waziristan--probably as part of the US strategy to intensify military offensive against the insurgent-terrorist enemy fighting with the US-led coalition forces inside Afghanistan or regrouping in terrorist safe havens inside Pakistan's tribal areas.

Afghan Security Capacity

Unlike the Bush Administration, whose priority was to deploy more US and NATO troops for combat missions in Afghanistan, the Obama Administration seeks to build the Afghan security capacity through “a more rapid build-up of the Afghan Army and police up to 134,000 and 82,000 over the next two years.” That is why, on March 27, 2009, President Obama announced to send 4,000 more US troops in addition to the 17,000 committed earlier, but only for training Afghan security forces. In September 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates forcefully argued for “the Afghan national security forces assuming a greater and greater role in controlling and protecting their own territory as we recede into an advisory capacity and ultimately withdraw.”

However, Mr. Gates, Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff and Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have all supported the assessment made by General McChrystal that additional 40,000 US troops would be required to effectively combat Taliban and other insurgents. This is only one of the troops srge options suggested by him. The other two range from a maximum of 80,000 troops to a minimum of 20,000.

It was in June that General McChrystal took over the command of US troops in Afghanistan, after the Bush Administration fired his predecessor General David McKiernan in May. President Obama tasked him to reassess the Afghan strategy. General McChrystal’s assessment hit President Obama's desk at the end of August, a copy of which was leaked to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post and was published by the paper in September. The assessment proposes altogether a new counter-insurgency strategy for Afghanistan, whose success depends on a significant increase on the number of US and NATO troops--because the principal problem in the current Afghan military mission identified in General McChrystal’s assessment is that it is “under-resourced.”

Gen McChrystal’s Assessment

In a grim assessment of the war, General McChrystal warned that the mission in Afghanistan would end in failure without more troops. He also called for shifting focus on cities and villages instead of sparsely populated rural areas, and suggested demanding more accountability from the Kabul government in return for international aid.

There are more than 100,000 NATO-led troops now stationed in Afghanistan, including nearly 68,000 American forces. President Obama’s decision to send thousands of more US troops to the Afghan theatre will be crucial for effectively combating Taliban and other insurgent forces, especially as Afghanistan’s fighting season resumes in spring 2010.

Of course, the Obama Administration will continue to face the dilemma emanating from the troops surge in the form of a corresponding surge in the US troops’ casualty rate. The Helmand operation, for instance, resulted in the largest ever US and British troops’ casualties, thereby eroding public support in the two countries for the military engagement in Afghanistan.

The major shift in US counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan that General McChrystal has proposed can tackle this dilemma. His strategy focuses on the volatile south and east of the country and emphasizes protecting the civilians even if it means allowing individual militants to escape. The shift in strategy accepts that some territory will be ceded to the Taliban, but has calculated that these will be remoter areas of limited value. The payoff would be a much denser concentration of Western troops around areas of higher population, including cities, major towns and key infrastructure.

Iraq War Lessons

It was with saturating numbers of troops that US forces produced dramatic improvements in security during the 2007 “surge” in Baghdad. And it is in the cities and towns that the message that Western troops can deliver security and economic benefit stands the best chance of finding a receptive audience.

In fact, some of the elements of his new strategy are already in place in the Afghan war theatre. Foreseeing further erosion in British public support for the Afghan war due to rising British troop casualties in recent weeks, he has assured that British soldiers will not be put in “harm’s way." General McChrystal has already restricted the use of air-strikes, arguing that the United States risked losing the war if it did not reduce civilian causalities. He has promptly ordered inquiries into incidents of air-strikes claiming civilian casualties. His strategy, therefore, essentially aims to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

It is a goal shared by America’s NATO allies, which have been reluctant in contributing more combat troops or reassigning more of their troops already deployed in Afghanistan for combat missions along side mainly US and British forces fighting the Taliban and other insurgents. That is why NATO Defense Ministers last month unanimously approved General McChrystal’s grim assessment of the Afghan war and his new counter-insurgency strategy to reverse the tide of Taliban-led insurgency.

Given that, President Obama is expected to announce a major increase in the number of US troops in Afghanistan, which will start to be deployed well before the spring 2010 offensive, with a bulk of them tasked with combat role and the remaining ones for training Afghan security forces. Simultaneously, the United States can now also expect its NATO allies to make a corresponding contribution of their own troops’ surge, especially for combat missions. All of this raises hopes about settling an issue that Obama Administration considers its top most global priority. Access this Commentary at