2 December 2009
Ayesha Khan
(Former Chatham House Expert)


President Obama has called for 30,000 more US troops to be deployed to Afghanistan to 'finish the job' and 'bring a successful conclusion to the war.' This is one of Obama's most important foreign policy decisions. It comes after months of deliberation and a painstaking consultative process, but the outcome to this much anticipated and long awaited announcement has been an anti-climax for those who expected a paradigm shift.

President Obama has not, with this announcement reconfigured US military engagement with Afghanistan. He has simply confirmed General McChrystal's request for more troops and reaffirmed his commitment to a military strategy that has been under discussion and in the pipeline since before his inauguration. The narrowly defined military objective is to 'disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda' from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The troop count is where the Obama administration diverges from the previous administration. President Bush took a 'light footprint' approach deploying few troops in places far in between. This failure in strategy is now being blamed for having missed the opportunity to quell the then nascent insurgency at the outset. Despite this, Afghanistan has been susceptible to mission creep and witnessed a gradual but steady increment in troop numbers throughout the Bush administration -and now a jump in numbers under the Obama administration.

Whether this troop surge will quell the insurgency is questionable and remains to be seen. Early indications from the first troop increase of 21,000 soldiers announced this year, points to an exacerbation and escalation of violence with military fatalities and civilian casualties reaching record high levels. The jury is still out on the impact of this troop surge as military operations are ongoing. But more troops are likely to lead to an intensification of the war and a further militarization of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. It is a high-risk high stakes strategy.

This troop surge is framed within an exit strategy. President Obama wants a rapid deployment by early 2010 to 'reverse the Taliban momentum', before handing over responsibility to Afghan forces and starting the withdrawal of US troops by July 2011. Obama has made clear that the Afghan government needs to play its part in tackling the Taliban on its border. It's setting out plans to quickly train large numbers of the Afghan army to take over the fight, but this is not without its difficulties. High rates of attrition, ethnic imbalances, and poor fighting capabilities of the Afghan army could undermine the counterinsurgency effort.

The number of troops both Afghan and US/NATO has become a defining factor in Obama's AfPAK strategy. The more important issue however, is what these troops will do on the ground, how effective a counter insurgency strategy they are likely to implement, and how their increased presence is received by Afghans who are war weary. It is these factors that will determine the future course and conduct of the war and how quickly US/NATO troops are able to enter into and then extricate from the AfPak conflict.

As the current strategy plans for a surge and then an exit out of Afghanistan, it inextricably links any successes in Afghanistan with Pakistan and points to the importance of tackling Al Qaeda and foreign militancy in Pakistan's tribal belt. Conflating the two separate but parallel conflicts into one existential threat further complicates any exit strategy out of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. It will take a well-formulated strategy not primarily determined on the troop surge to tackle the Taliban on both sides of the Durand line.