US soldiers in Afghanistan, as President Obama announces plans to send 30,000 reinforcements. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images
In announcing his long-awaited Afghanistan troop decision on Tuesday night, Barack Obama donned the mantle of wartime president for good with the escalating conflict threatening to overshadow his tenure in the White House.
As part of the careful and treacherous balance he straddled in unveiling his revamped strategy, involving the accelerated deployment of 30,000 more troops on top of the 21,000 he dispatched shortly after taking office earlier this year, President Obama was careful to outline his plans to “finish the job” and finally extricate the US from one of its longest wars, starting in July 2011. To avoid being sucked into a quagmire in a war he did not start, the president must take heed of the lessons of history, where infusing more forces has yet to grant victory for the occupier in Afghanistan, that graveyard of empires.
Obama, who was swept to power in part on his promise to end one war – Iraq – is now escalating another. Does this make him a man of war, or a man of peace?
His primetime address from the halls of the West Point military academy, capping more than three months of protracted deliberations and hours spent huddling with his war council, comes just a week before he receives his Nobel peace prize. When Obama finally holds up that heavy medal, it may be an honour that he, and the Nobel committee that awarded it, have come to regret for its political liability.
The wave of goodwill that blessed his historic election, the very aspirations the Nobel nod rewarded, all of that has now subsided as scepticism and disillusionment have settled in, the greying president now down in his job approval ratings and bruised by almost a year of political battles. The messy deliberative process on Afghanistan, punctuated by a flurry of leaks and counterleaks, showed hesitation and second-guessing at a defining moment of his presidency, tarnishing the image built during the campaign of a White House fully in control of its message.
And it’s only the beginning. The drums of civil war among the Democrats and partisan fights are already rolling, with Pentagon chief Robert Gates, the country’s top military officer Admiral Michael Mullen and secretary of state Hillary Clinton kicking off on Wednesday a series of hearings on the deeply unpopular war. Now in its ninth year, the “war of necessity,” as Obama calls it, has failed to cripple a reinvigorated Taliban-led insurgency, and neither made a dent in the booming Afghan drug trade nor brought stability to a country still reeling from decades of war and two occupations. It is also killing more foreign troops and more Afghan civilians than ever before.
In the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, some of Obama’s fellow Democrats have already proposed a war surtax, with the US troop level now set to reach 100,000 at a cost of $1m per soldier, per year. Including contractors and military personnel, this means the US presence will be larger than that of Soviet forces at the height of its occupation in the 1980s. Factoring in hoped-for pledges from allies, around 150,000 forces are set to operate in Afghanistan, approximately the same number as US troops in Iraq after the 2007 surge.
Eager to tame restive Democrats while also reassuring Republicans he is not the naive peacenik they make him out to be, Obama made clear the “off-ramps” of US engagement in the years to come, with troop strength carefully calibrated to the Kabul government’s progress in battling rampant corruption and increasing the size and efficiency of Afghan security forces.
To close the gap between the president’s military orders – issued on Sunday – and the request for 40,000 additional boots on the ground from top US and Nato commander General Stanley McChrystal, the Obama administration is seeking another 5,000 to 10,000 troops from its allies. But with Britain, the second-largest contributor of military forces, only mustering a 500-troop increase so far, all does not spell well for that goal. Six others have promised reinforcements, while Canada and the Netherlands have already announced they are pulling out. Hillary Clinton heads to Europe next in a bid to secure commitments from governments also struggling to sell the war to their deeply sceptical publics.
The president is also facing dilemmas with a weak central government in nuclear-armed Pakistan, with Osama bin Laden believed to be hiding in its mountainous badlands along its border with Afghanistan after managing to evade the most powerful military in the world, and Afghan president Hamid Karzai seen as illegitimate by a large portion of his population. Iran, China and others also have entangled interests in the war-torn nation.
To the Pakistanis, Obama is vowing not to abandon them in a repeat of 1989, but the very talk of US exit strategies for Islamabad translates into growing influence from its arch-rival, India. While Pakistan’s own fight against militants is a key part of the plan, Washington keeps quiet about its involvement there because it is largely covert, mainly in the form of special forces operations and CIA-managed drone strikes targeting al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents, and out of fear of further destabilising an already fragile government. Last night Obama stressed that Pakistan’s stability was one of his main aims, with the need for a “strategy that works on both sides of the border” to eradicate the “cancer” of violent extremism.
In Karzai, back for a second term after fraud-marred elections, Washington has placed at the centre of its war strategy a mercurial partner. But Obama did not outline the consequences should Karzai fail to deliver, out of fear of further rattling an already tense relationship. That may signal a lowering of the bar on what defines success, the US satisfied perhaps with an Afghan government that can survive on its own. But even that’s a challenging objective.
For now, a war-weary US is braced for more flag-draped coffins and deeply scarred loved ones returning home.