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Afghanistan endgame begins – Winner not certain

By Thanapathi
US president Barack Obama made a monumental announcement last week stating that he intends to withdraw 33,000 of the 100,000 US troops deployed in Afghanistan by the end of next year – reversing the surge he ordered at the end of 2009. The “surge” US troops deployed by Obama last year have been concentrating on battling the Taliban in the flat, desert south through a counter-insurgency strategy that requires intensive investments of money and personnel.

Despite its tremendous cost – including more than 1,600 American military fatalities, the war in Afghanistan has not received a great deal of media attention in the US. It has not been the focus of extensive Congressional debate, nor was it a major issue in the presidential election of 2008 or the congressional elections of last year. Having commenced the final withdrawal from Iraq in 2010 by pulling out nearly 90,000 troops the Obama administration made clear from the very onset that it intends to focus on Afghanistan, the original war on terror launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks against the US.

Having boosted troop numbers from a mere 30,000 at the time he took office in January 2009, president Oabama has incorporated as many as 70,000 troops in to the war-torn country. Even though he was due to announce a withdrawal last year after reviewing progress, or the lack of it, the military leaders protested the action forcing him to commit further troops in an illusive attempt to secure victory.
Even though the surge of troops has succeeded in reducing the number of attacks against foreign troops, it has not been entirely successful in eliminating Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Currently, the US has reluctantly been negotiating with the Taliban in an attempt to secure a peace once foreign troops have left the country. Working with a blatantly corrupt Afghan government which is unpopular with its own people the mighty superpower has been reduced to brokering a deal with a ragtag army of rebels.

Internal dissent
The timing of the withdrawal announcement comes at a crucial time when military leaders at the Pentagon and on the ground in Afghanistan claim that that they have made reasonable progress and warn that these could be reversed by a hasty retreat. Signalling this rift between the civilian and military wings of the administration the U.S. military’s top officer told Congress last Thursday that President Obama’s decision to withdraw up to 33,000 troops by next summer is risky but keeps the U.S. and its allies on a path toward stabilising the country.
In testimony to separate congressional panels, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left no doubt that Obama chose a quicker path to winding down U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan than his generals preferred. “The president’s decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept,” Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee. “More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course,” he added. “But that does not necessarily make it the best course. Only the president, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take. I believe he has done so.”

Most Americans oppose continuing the war in Afghanistan. At least 1,600 members of the U.S. military have died and 12,000 have been wounded since the war began in late 2001. The financial cost of the war has passed $440 billion and is on the rise, jumping to $120 billion a year. Despite billions of dollars being spent on developing the country, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world with little hope of an immediate recovery from decades of war.

Unhappy troopers
The United States currently has around 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, while more than 40,000 soldiers from other countries have been contributing to a NATO-led security force.  Many of them welcomed President Obama’s announcement last week of a withdrawal strategy. For years US partners, mostly from Europe have been reluctant partners of the coalition. Domestically in their respective countries the war in Afghanistan has been enormously unpopular, particularly as it dragged on with seemingly no results.
France has followed in the footsteps of U.S. President Barack Obama’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, announcing its own troop drawdown. France currently has some 4,000 troops serving under NATO command. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement just hours after Obama’s announcement that his country would start “a progressive pullout of reinforcements sent to Afghanistan, in a proportional way and on a similar timetable to the pullout of the American reinforcements.” In Germany, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said his country aimed to begin pulling out troops for the first time by year’s end. Germany has some 4,900 troops in a part of northern Afghanistan that has seen increasing fighting in recent years. British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, responding to Obama’s announcement has sent military chiefs an unequivocal message over the war in Afghanistan, saying there would be no British troops fighting there by 2015, “no ifs, no buts” as reported in The Telegraph.

Victory undefined
The Taliban has been plying a waiting game for years knowing that this day would eventually come when western countries loose their appetite to take casualties on the long drawn out conflict in a remote part of the world. It has been the strategy used by Afghan warriors for centuries who have known that even though their country is invaded by armies from Alexander the Great to the former Soviet empire eventually these occupiers will bleed in this inhospitable land and their desire to remain would eventually be sapped.

The question facing US, NATO and the western coalition as they prepare the final withdrawal procedures is what they have achieved in over a decade of war. The killing of Osama bin Ladin in Pakistan in May this year gives the US a reasonable argument to declare victory in their mission to avenge the attackers that killed over 3000 civilians on a September morning in 2001. However, with regard to the rest of the mission, to restore democracy in Afghanistan, destroy the opium production and drug trade, deliver women’s rights and make Afghanistan a viable country that can prevent it being used by terrorist ever again, well the jury is still out on that account.