Obama's escalation

IssueMay 2009
Feature by Gabriel Carlyle

British commentators have been greatly impressed by Obama’s “new” strategy for the wars in Afghanistan/Pakistan (unveiled on 27 March, after PN2508 went to press), with the Independent’s leader writer claiming that it represented a “[complete] U-turn… shift[ing] the focus on to civilian projects and training”. “Fears in some quarters that the US planned an Iraq-style military ‘surge’, to be preceded by demands for many more combat troops from supposedly lily-livered European allies, were always misplaced,” the editorial asserted.

In reality, there was little that was new in the “new” strategy: “It’s not new,” one senior NATO official told the Guardian’s Julian Borger: “It’s the same strategy but with more resources”. Far from “shifting the focus on to civilian projects and training”, “Nato is plotting a major offensive against Taliban strongholds across the south, using the new forces and assets at its disposal”, (FT, 24 March), while the US is set to escalate its drone attacks in Pakistan (see p2), and further US troop increases (on top of the extra 21,000 being sent this year) are said to be likely.

Indeed, on 1 April, general David Petraeus, commander of US Central Command, which controls US military efforts in the region, disclosed that US commanders have requested the deployment of an additional 10,000 US troops to Afghanistan in 2010.

The decision will be made by US president Barack Obama this autumn. If approved, this would bring the total approved for next year to 78,000, according to US officials.

As for the demands on lily-livered Europeans, the US seems to have given up hopes of achieving much on this score and “scaled back [their] demands in order to avoid being snubbed publicly” at the NATO summit in early April, according to Guardian.

The focus switched to training the Afghan police and enhancing security in the run-up to the Afghan elections in Afghanistan in August. While a headline figure of 5,000 European troops was announced – including 900 from Britain – “military officials conceded that the total on offer may have been inflated by double-accounting” (The Times).

Britain’s move

Meanwhile, a further permanent British troop increase in Afghanistan remains on the cards, with the government’s top military advisers apparently “urging ministers to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan’ (Guardian, 8 April), and the Obama administration “considering putting increasing public pressure on Britain, with senior US officials urging Mr Brown to start ‘talking specifics’” (Times, 4 April).

The Times quoted a NATO source on 3 April: “[T]he special relationship… is not about forging financial deals but about people who pull triggers.”


It was reported on 13 April, that six civilians, including a woman and two children, were killed, and fourteen wounded, in a US/NATO airstrike in Kunar district, Afghanistan, on that day. Watapour district governor, Zalmai Yousufzai, and district police chief Mirza Mohammad, stated that civilian homes were struck about nine miles northwest of the provincial capital Asadabad.

NATO said that “four to eight enemy fighters were killed” during an operation against militants suspected of planning attacks on Western outposts.

An AFP reporter saw a wounded 25-year-old woman, a 14-year-old boy and two men in hospital in Asadabad. “We were asleep and all of a sudden the roof collapsed,” said 14-year-old Zakirullah, who gave only one name. “I don’t remember anything,” he added: “I got to know here that my father, my mother, my brother and my younger sister have all been killed and I am wounded.”

A woman named Shahida said: “The people took me out of the rubble and there are many still there. I was told nine people from my family were killed and wounded. I don’t know who is dead, who is wounded and who is alive in my family.”

According to USA Today (7 April), the US Air Force dropped 1,314 tons of munitions on Afghanistan in 2008, a third less than it did in 2007.

Afghan guerrillas have apparently learned to disperse rapidly after making their attacks, reducing the opportunity to bomb them. The USAF says it has also been tightening up its rules on airstrikes. Since 2001, the USAF has dropped 14,049 tons of bombs in Afghanistan and 18,858 tons in Iraq.

Raid deaths

US special forces troops have admitted mistakenly killing a teacher, her three children and her brother-in-law, while preparing a night-time raid on a neighbouring house in the eastern province of Khost.

The occupants of the house fired on the US troops climbing onto the wall of their compound, thinking they were thieves attempting a robbery. The US soldiers returned fire. The youngest child to die was a boy born the previous week.

Taliban offer

As part of the national reconciliation process facilitated by the government of Saudi Arabia, the Taliban have indicated that they are prepared to commit themselves to refraining from banning girls’ education, beating up taxi drivers for listening to Bollywood music, or measuring the length of mens’ beards. Burqas worn by women in public would be “strongly recommended” but not compulsory.

These undertakings, made by Taliban representatives, have been confirmed by mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, formerly Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan and now an intermediary in the Saudi-sponsored peace initiative.

According to Zaeef, the Taliban no longer insist that their members should form the government. They would apparently agree to rule by religious scholars and technocrats who meet with their approval following a national loya jirga, or community meeting.

A critical Taliban demand, sure to be rejected, is that all foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan within six months.

One former Taliban minister, however, told the Independent on Sunday (2 April) that some of the more aggressive demands were for “internal consumption”, and that Taliban negotiators would be content, for the time being, with gestures such as the UN unbanning some senior figures in the insurgency.