Obama is hoping for a turnaround in US fortunes in Afghanistan – but any new strategy will need more troops and more treasure
Throughout its history, Afghanistan has been known as a graveyard of empires. But it is here that President Barack Obama is focusing America's war effort, dispatching tens of thousands of US troops and staking his presidency on a dramatic turnaround.
Yet, as one senior US military official recently conceded, the fight in Afghanistan is "tough and getting tougher". With violence at its highest since the 2001 invasion, a continuing absence of reliable Afghan security forces and the thriving poppy trade funding the Taliban insurgency, the US is in for a long battle that will inevitably require a greater military presence. While the number of US troops there will reach 68,000 by the end of this year, that figure still pales in comparison with the 130,000 stationed in Iraq – from where American forces are gradually being drawn down.
The top US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is putting the final touches on his review of the operation, one of several the Obama administration has commissioned in an attempt to gauge the challenges it faces. McChrystal has already signalled he will not let financial and political considerations get in the way of the recommendations. He also has not ruled out a troop increase.
As a US-led coalition of thousands of troops seeks to drive a stake through the Taliban's heartland of southern Helmand province, it has been aided by only 500 Afghan forces. But the coalition does not lack an Afghan military presence in Helmand, with about 5,000 Afghan soldiers in the province. But the lightweight response has incited much frustration among US commanders seeking to put an Afghan face on the battle.
McChrystal, whose assessment of the war during his first 60 days on the ground is due by 14 August, is widely expected to call for further increases in Afghan forces. The US has urged its European allies to help train and maintain the Afghan security forces, but any substantial increase would have to be accompanied by more US military.
The Afghan army is on course to grow to 134,000 soldiers by the end of 2011, up from the current 85,000, for a price tag of $4bn. The Afghan national police, beset by corruption, is still lagging behind the army and aims to grow to 82,000 personnel at the same time. But McChrystal is likely to recommend a far greater increase in the Afghan forces, with the expense falling in large part on the war-weary US taxpayers and a sceptical Congress.
This comes at a critical time for the war as it approaches its eighth anniversary but also as the US public's patience wears thin in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, and with the 2010 mid-term congressional elections looming.
Any troop increases would come on the heels of the suggestion by the Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, that the US step up its withdrawal from Iraq, regardless of any continued violence. Gates said that another 5,000 troops could leave before the end of the year, in addition to two brigades – about 10,000 strong – scheduled to do so. A faster drawdown from Iraq would boost troop numbers in Afghanistan without stretching the US military.
A steeper timetable is already planned following Iraqi elections in January, so that only a residual force of 30,000 to 50,000 would remain from August 2010, until all US troops are due to withdraw by the end of 2011.
Gates has said he would consider sending more troops to Afghanistan if necessary, but has cautioned against establishing too large a presence, warning in January that "if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of a Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose." Both Obama and his national security advisor James Jones have questioned the need for more troops as the best way to deliver US success in Afghanistan.
Rather than focusing on Taliban insurgents and their al-Qaida allies, the US military mission under President Obama has already shifted toward securing the population and bolstering the Afghan government's ability to provide security, and so undermining support for the Taliban. The Afghan public is already distrustful of Hamid Karzai's administration, amid swirling allegations of corruption, as the country prepares to vote in August's elections.
McChrystal has said he is considering shifting the US and Nato troops under his command away from the mountains and toward population centres, a move that would reflect a similar effort by General David Petraeus – now head of the US central command – when he took over in Iraq, establishing small bases in cities and villages. That strategy helped turn the momentum of the war in Iraq.
And in an attempt to stave off a major source of financing for the Taliban, Washington is considering paying farmers to stop growing opium poppies. The Taliban currently pays fees to farmers to cultivate the poppies, contributing to Afghanistan's dubious distinction as the world's leading producer of opium and heroin. Helmand, the centre of the Taliban insurgency, is also a major source of the profitable crop funding the militants.
If the US cash payment plan goes ahead, some officials are aware that the previous poppy eradication programme, which encourages farmers to plant alternative food crops, has not been successful because the alternatives are less profitable than growing poppies. As one defence official put it: "If what you do is you take money away from [the farmers], now you've created more insurgents."