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AFGHANISTAN: More Questions Than Answers

KABUL, Dec 10 2009 (IPS) - Last week President Obama made what is probably the most crucial announcement in the past five years of war.

In a speech at West Point, the U.S.’s most famous and prestigious military academy, Obama laid out how he will send 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, in addition to thousands more from allies like Britain.

The forces are to be divided into two groups: one, including a large contingent of U.S. Marines, will fight the insurgency head-on, with a special focus on the south of Afghanistan. The other group will focus on training Afghan security forces, increasing the strength of Afghan National Army and Police to 400,000 strong.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to come out of Obama’s announcement is the news that U.S. forces will begin to withdraw from Afghanistan 18 months from now.

This seems to go along with President Karzai’s vow to have international forces out of Afghanistan in the next five years, with responsibility for Afghan security falling squarely on the shoulders of Afghan police and the army.

The American president’s plan follows closely on the recommendations made by U.S. General Stanley McChrystal during the fall. His recommendations – as enumerated by a confidential memo leaked to reporters a few months ago – called for 40,000 more soldiers to be deployed in population centers like Khost, Kandahar and Kabul. The fresh soldiers would stay close to the local population and try to protect them from insurgents, while creating a force too big to be attacked with the kind of sporadic strikes that are the hallmark of the Afghan insurgency.

But McChrystal’s strategy also hinged on a regime of transparency in the national government and also leadership at the local level. To this end, Obama has promised to work with the Karzai government to bring accountability to leadership in Kabul and try and build some trust between the Afghan people their elected officials.

But the success of this “surge” hinges on a central and crucial question: Will the Afghan government rise to the challenge? Afghan security forces are as riddled with corruption as the Kabul government, with high ranking jobs sometimes being auctioned off for tens-of-thousands of dollars. And despite years of training and mentoring, much of the supply line operations, that is feeding, clothing and arming security forces, is still done by the U.S.

Another unanswered question is how this surge will affect a possible reconciliation process with the Taliban and other insurgent fighters.

In his speech, Obama made clear that the U.S. and her Afghan allies would welcome any insurgent fighters who choose to lay down their arms and support a national unity government. But during this summer’s election, candidate Karzai promised to hold a “super shura” with top Taliban commanders and his own high-level negotiators.

Can these talks still take place with 30,000 plus new foreign soldiers on the ground here? Perhaps, but certainly not in public.

What is clear is that back home, President Obama now “owns” this war. While he used much of his speech last week to criticise his predecessor, who ignored Afghanistan to invade Iraq, by making the case to the world that the U.S. effort here should be redoubled, this phase of the Afghan conflict has become Obama’s own. It is likely no coincidence that his timetable for withdrawal ends right before the next time he is up for re-election, in 2012.

Back home in Afghanistan, people are wary.

Afghans aren’t interested in more soldiers if more soldiers means civilian casualties, increased military checkpoints and foreign support of provincial governors that do not have the people’s best interest at heart. More soldiers will also likely do little to provide round the clock power to far-flung provinces, get clean water to villages and increase the number of paved roads in Afghanistan. But this troop increase could also be a turning point in the war.

Though insurgents now have the advantage in many parts of Afghanistan, a muscular thrust by Americans and the Afghans they are training, could put anti-government forces back on their heels and put a serious dent in the insurgency for the first time since 2004.

It could give the Afghan people a chance to participate in government and civic life without fear of reprisals. It could give businesses a chance to expand and infrastructure programs – such as the recent push to erect cell-phone towers in the north – that have been hampered by the heightened insurgency.

The good news is that it won’t be long before Afghans know how this will turn out. The first new U.S. soldiers should be arriving here no later than February, just two months from now. The impact should be immediate, and if positive, hopefully sustained.

But it is yet unknown what the impact will be. The only certainty is that more will die on both sides of the conflict. *IPS and Killid, an independent Afghan media group, are partners since 2004.

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