Obama to escalate war in Afghanistan

IssueDecember 2008 - January 2009
News by Gabriel Carlyle

Building on plans and programmes set in motion by the outgoing Bush administration, president-elect Barack Obama intends to escalate the US war in Afghanistan, and to force Britain to sharply increase its troop strength there from 8,000 to 11,000 soldiers on the ground.

There are already plans to spend $100 million next year expanding Kandahar airport to house 26 Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft for a US army ODIN (“observe, detect, identify and neutralize”) task force of the kind already operating in Iraq.

The chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Michael Mullen has ordered that the map of the Afghanistan battle space be redrawn to include the tribal regions of western Pakistan, according to The Washington Post (11 November).

Mullen is likely to stay in place for at least the first year or two of Obama’s presidency. By tradition, he can expect to be appointed for a second term as the president’s top military adviser.

Time to fight

What is Mullen thinking? According to The Sunday Telegraph (2 November), “American commanders have looked at all the options in a thorough review and… have decided that now is the time to fight.” They are to present president Obama with plans to fight an intense five-year war against the guerrillas, “a war that commanders think looks winnable.”

A senior Nato source in Kabul confirmed: “They [US generals] are simply not prepared to let the people responsible for 11 September move back in…. If the Europeans decided to go they wouldn’t that much missed, frankly. Some of them are in the way.”

Britain, on the other hand, will remain a key partner, though battles in Helmand province (where British troops are deployed) will increasingly be fought by US combat troops and led by US commanders.

According to The Sunday Telegraph, Obama is going to ask Britain to send 3,000 more troops – especially elite forces – to Afghanistan when the remaining British front-line forces are pulled out of Iraq next summer.

A “US military intelligence official who was aware of discussions among Mr Obama’s foreign policy team” said: “There won’t be any excuse to be anti-American any more…. Allies will be expected to pull their weight. That’s a fair assessment.”

A senior British diplomat told The Sunday Telegraph: “Obama will be very tough on Afghanistan. The major PR headache next year is how we sell the withdrawal of troops from Iraq to the Americans.” Obama “will publicly say it’s fine, but in return he will want them sent to Afghanistan.” British qualms

For its part, the British military appears to be divided on this question. Last issue, we reported statements by the new head of the British army that 5,000 more British troops should be sent to Afghanistan.

Since then, one of Britain’s most senior military officers, lieutenant general sir Peter Wall has warned that there is no point in sending reinforcements to Afghanistan until the Afghans themselves are able to control the ground captured by foreign troops. The idea that “flooding” Afghanistan with a “whole load” more troops is the solution is “misleading”, says Wall.

The chief of the defence staff, air chief marshall sir Jock Stirrup, has also “given a clear warning to ministers that troops should not be transferred from Iraq to Afghanistan when Britain’s military commitment there is scaled down next year.”

We’ve been here before. British military qualms did not stop Tony Blair joining George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and there seems little reason to believe that similar qualms today will prevent Gordon Brown from being equally subservient.

A senior British official told the Financial Times a few days after the US presidential election: “When president Obama phones Gordon Brown and says: ‘Gordon… you need to send more forces to Afghanistan’, that’s something that the prime minister won’t be able to resist. Brown will want to get alongside him. So we need to start planning for that possibility.”

Topics: Afghanistan