by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 3rd Dec 09
The United States Military Academy at West Point, where America trains cadets to officer its army, has long provided an emotive rostrum for sounding the trumpet to battle. John F Kennedy, chose West Point to brace America, in 1962, for the looming Vietnam conflict. In 2002, George Bush took the podium at West Point to publicly unveil his doctrine of “pre-emptive action”, which opened the doors to Iraq. Barrak Obama, too, decided to look into the eyes of the cadets he would commit to battle, when announcing today that the US would despatch 30,000 additional troops to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
If George W Bush’s presidency is condemned to be associated with the Iraq War, Obama has ensured that his will be linked with Afghanistan. Since he was sworn in, Obama has tripled America’s military commitment to Afghanistan from 32,000 US soldiers in that country to 98,000 once this latest surge is implemented. This increase disregards growing opposition in America to remaining embroiled in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is now Obama’s war.
Obama’s political isolation is highlighted by his allies’ reluctance to bear a greater share of the military burden. The 19 coalition members who are fighting in Afghanistan have mustered --- after protracted US lobbying --- a mere 7,000 additional soldiers.
Given these risks, Obama spent the greater part of his 30-minute speech laying out a clear and inflexible exit strategy for eventually quitting Afghanistan. He declared that the troop surge would allow America to, “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011…. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These [30,000 soldiers] 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.”
Obama’s commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, should be pleased with his commander-in-chief’s support. Exactly two months ago, McChrystal had submitted his plan for Afghanistan, asking for 40,000 troops to execute it. Obama has given him almost as much as he asked, and strongly endorsed General McChrystal’s strategy of training 400,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen, who would handle security after America headed home.
Obama’s plan could provide an equal satisfaction to the Taliban, who now know exactly when their enemy plans to leave. For years now, senior Taliban leaders have predicted that the west does not have the stomach for a long haul in Afghanistan. Their videotaped reactions have not yet reached Al Jazeera Television, but it is safe to predict an element of “I told you so”.
Obama implicitly acknowledged this danger, but emphatically rejected calls for “a nation-building project of up to a decade”. An open-ended commitment, said Obama, would incur heavy costs, while “the absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.”
But Obama’s readiness to declare victory and leave sits uneasily with his reassurances to Pakistan. Praising Pakistan’s military offensive in Swat and South Waziristan, Obama proffered substantial military and aid flows provided Pakistan finished the job. Addressing Pakistan’s deep-rooted suspicion that --- like at the end of the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan --- Washington would turn its back on Islamabad, Obama declared, “We will strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries…. the Pakistan people must know America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.”
For Afghanistan watchers, Obama’s West Point speech raises many questions. Can 140,000 troops pacify Afghanistan? US Army Chief, General Eric Shinseki, had estimated that half a million US soldiers would be needed to pacify Iraq, a significantly smaller country. Next, how will Afghan President Hamid Karzai, allegedly corrupt and a proven vote rigger, survive after US forces leave? And, finally, is Obama being too optimistic in saying that Pakistani public opinion had turned against extremism and that Islamabad was now genuinely on the side of America.