Coming to Afghanistan: more U.S. troops, narrower mission

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -The 21,000 paratroopers, infantrymen and Marines being rushed to Afghanistan this spring will fight with a markedly narrowed mission: to kill al-Qaida and hard-core Taliban insurgents and to train Afghan soldiers and police.

The new strategy, outlined by President Barack Obama at the White House on Friday, breaks from the ambitious goals of championing freedom and establishing a moderate, democratic state with a thriving economy pursued by the Bush administration.

In a sober speech at the White House, Obama declared that for Americans, the Afghanistan-Pakistan region "has become the most dangerous place in the world," and he acknowledged that the struggle to contain an expanding, violent insurgency has reached a "perilous" point.

But, he stressed, "We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future." America's goal is simple, he said: "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future."

Obama promised $1.5 billion a year to build roads, schools and hospitals in Pakistan, where the threat posed by an accelerating al-Qaida and Taliban-led insurgency was underscored Friday by a suicide bomb blast that killed more than 50 worshipers at a mosque.

He vowed to enlist nations in the region, including China, India, Russia and Iran, in a new diplomatic front against such extremist violence.

White House officials later acknowledged that some details of the new strategy, including dealing with narcotics and corruption, haven't been worked out yet.

But a senior intelligence official underscored the urgency of the new effort, saying that Taliban insurgents are gaining territory and that the Afghan government is losing influence across the country.

Most troubling, he said, is that the Taliban has set up alternative governments in some districts.

With the Taliban expanding and additional U.S. forces pouring into Afghanistan, "we project that the violence will grow even greater - 2009 will be more violent than 2008," said the official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.

Outside the White House, the new strategy was greeted with some caution and skepticism among counterinsurgency experts.

"I think it's the right first step - but it may turn out to be more of a down payment" toward success, said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations. Prevailing against an entrenched insurgency "can be a very expensive, long-term undertaking," he said.

Even with the troop increases, it might take three to five years to achieve significant progress against the Taliban, a senior allied commander, Dutch Maj. Gen. Mart de Kruif, told Pentagon reporters last week.

The new plan, crafted during two months of intense deliberations among senior U.S. military officers, diplomats and national security experts with top officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Europe, bears the fingerprints of Gen. David Petraeus, architect of the successful political-military "surge" in Iraq.

The plan incorporates Petraeus' belief that insurgencies must be fought locally, with troops dispersed into the countryside to protect the population, work with local tribal leaders and encourage defections from local Taliban fighters.

The U.S. reinforcements - 17,000 alerted late last year by the Pentagon and an additional 4,000 announced Friday - will be dispersed into the countryside to join 36,000 American troops already in Afghanistan. Each unit will pair with an Afghan army or police unit for joint operations to broaden the Afghans' combat training and experience.

The added 4,000 U.S. military trainers mobilized by Obama are meant to complete the recruiting and training of 134,000 soldiers and 82,000 police within two years, instead of the five years envisioned by the Bush administration. There are now about 80,000 soldiers and 76,000 police on the Afghan rolls, but both forces have high rates of absenteeism and desertion, according to U.S. military officers.

Obama also directed a civilian "surge" of 300 to 500 technical experts to be deployed into the countryside, as well as senior diplomats to beef up the diplomatic clout at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

"For the first time we are providing the kind of civilian support that this mission has always needed," said Bruce Riedel, a senior diplomat who oversaw formation of the strategy.

For all its tighter focus, however, Obama's Afghan strategy skips over some critical and difficult problems, including narcotics production and government corruption.

Richard Holbrooke, Obama's envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, acknowledged that corruption has infected Afghanistan's government "at the highest levels."

"We view it as a cancer eating away at the country," he told reporters at the White House. "We're not going to lay out how we're going to deal with it - to some extent, we don't know yet."

Holbrooke said the current U.S. approach to dealing with poppy cultivation and narcotics production is "not working." The narcotics trade generates annual profits of about $3.2 billion and is a major source of funding for the insurgents. But Holbrooke offered no clues about how the Obama administration will deal with it.

Skepticism about the new strategy extended to Democrats on Capitol Hill, where Missouri's Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, pronounced it better than nothing.

"There is no guarantee of success with this strategy," said Skelton, a major critic of President George W. Bush's handling of the Afghan war. "But not having a strategy ... is certainly a guarantee of failure."

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