Saturday, September 26, 2009

Obama's Big Decision On Afghanistan

President Obama has got to decide whether to send yet more troops to Afghanistan. That's after the American commander of NATO forces in the country made a formal request for backup, thought to be around 30,000 extra personnel. In a report that was recently leaked, General Stanley McChrystal commented that the west's mission in Afghanistan would probably fail unless more troops were sent to bolster the force.

Mr Obama must be thinking that it wasn't supposed to be like this. A year and more ago, when he was still just a candidate running for the top job, it was easy to say that President Bush had done the wrong thing in focusing on Iraq to the exclusion of Afghanistan, and that a President Obama would change that. Iraq bad, Afghanistan good.

But now he's in the Oval Office, Mr Obama is being forced to see things from a different perspective. It's a well-worn cliche to say that Afghanistan is a graveyard of armies. But it's true enough, from Britain's various wars in the country during the 19th and early 20th century, to the Soviet Union's ill-fated occupation of the 1980s. Now that the Americans and NATO are in, they've realised that more resources are needed to do the job, otherwise they will join the long list of defeated military forces which were forced to leave Afghanistan.

So President Obama's choice is this. The first option would be to accept that the mission will never achieve its objectives, and announce plans to begin to pull out. This would probably be welcomed by some of America's NATO allies (like Italy), which are only now beginning to suffer the kind of casualties all too familiar to the US and Britain. But it would be a tough sell to the American people. After all the US doesn't like losing, and defeat in Afghanistan would be seen by many as defeat at the hands of those who attacked the US on 9/11.

The other option is to give General McChrystal what he wants, and commit to Afghanistan for the long haul. This is also a tough sell to both America's NATO allies and the American people, because the cost in terms of both lives and money may well be huge. In some ways this would be a far riskier option, because there are so many difficult-to-predict aspects of the Afghan issue which could have a major impact, such as the stability of the apparently corrupt Afghan government and the security situation in Pakistan next door. If Mr Obama takes this choice, he will be trusting to luck as well as the abilities of his military forces.

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