Can more U.S. troops in Afghanistan really convert Afghans into an effective fighting force? Will allies answer the call to do more? Is Pakistan truly prepared to take on the extremists who pose the greatest threat?
President Barack Obama said yes in his speech Tuesday laying out his plan to pour 30,000 more troops into the Afghan war, then begin pulling out in 18 months.
The prospects, though, at least judging by recent history, are mixed.
A look at some of his claims and how they compare with the reality on the ground:
OBAMA: The extra U.S. forces for Afghanistan “will increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans. “
THE FACTS: The problem with Afghan forces is not just their lack of numbers. And it’s not an unwillingness to fight. The problem too often is their effectiveness, once trained for combat. Too many get into the fight but don’t remain or don’t perform.
A major change of approach promised by Obama’s new chief commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is to partner whole U.S. and NATO combat units with newly fielded Afghan units — large and small — so the Afghans get more exposure to professional military leadership practices and combat tactics. This is an approach that was used to good effect in recent years in Iraq.
OBAMA: “Because this is an international effort, I have asked that our commitment be joined by contributions from our allies. Some have already provided additional troops, and we are confident that there will be further contributions in the days and weeks ahead.”
THE FACTS: Obama’s confidence skirts years of mostly empty-handed American efforts to get others, including allies in NATO, to deepen their commitment to combat in Afghanistan.
One reason, which Obama did not mention, is that other countries, particularly those in Europe, have viewed the conflict — and its likely solution — much differently than Washington. They have seen it primarily as a humanitarian and reconstruction mission, rather than a counterinsurgency fight. And they have pushed for greater nonmilitary means of addressing Afghanistan’s instability.
For a time there also was a European sense of hangover from the U.S. invasion of Iraq and a perceived go-it-alone bent by the Bush administration.
Obama is technically correct in anticipating that some allies will offer more assistance, possibly as early as the coming week during a series of NATO consultations about how the troop requirements of commanders in Afghanistan might be met. But history has shown that these troop contributions often are incremental, sometimes slow in materializing and frequently with conditions attached.
OBAMA: “In the past, there have been those in Pakistan who have argued that the struggle against extremism is not their fight, and that Pakistan is better off doing little or seeking accommodation with those who use violence. But in recent years, as innocents have been killed from Karachi to Islamabad, it has become clear that it is the Pakistani people who are the most endangered by extremism. Public opinion has turned. The Pakistani Army has waged an offensive in Swat and South Waziristan. And there is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy.”
THE FACTS: It’s true the Pakistani army this year has launched offensives against extremist elements in the areas cited by Obama. What he did not mention, however, is that the groups being targeted by the Pakistanis are those that threaten the Pakistani government — not those, also based in Pakistan, that are focused on attacking U.S. and Afghan forces on the other side of the porous border.
Obama administration officials have publicly praised Pakistan for taking on the extremists in Swat and South Waziristan. But they also have made clear that they want Pakistan to put more military pressure on the Afghan-focused extremist groups, which have so far not been confronted on the Pakistan side of the border, other than by airstrikes from U.S. drones.
Among the groups not yet confronted directly by the Pakistan army: al-Qaida, whose top leader, Osama bin Laden, is believed to be hiding on the Pakistan side of the border.
OBAMA: “Let me be clear: There has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war.”
THE FACTS: He is correct, despite being accused by former Vice President Dick Cheney of dithering by taking the autumn to review options for Afghanistan.
Former Afghan war commander Gen. David McKiernan asked in 2008 for three brigades — of which two were approved for deployment by Obama in March of this year — but wanted the third to arrive in 2010, not earlier. His successor, McChrystal, posited a range of troop buildups — favoring about 40,000 — but did not ask for them to be in place as early as this year.