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Afghanistan: Are US troops coming or going?

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 2 December 2009
Cite as EurasiaNet, Afghanistan: Are US troops coming or going?, 2 December 2009, available at: [accessed 17 November 2017]
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Aunohita Mojumdar: 12/02/09

In Kabul, US President Barack Obama's strategic vision for Afghanistan seems to be sowing confusion and skepticism.

In his December 1 address, Obama announced an increase of 30,000 troops – with deployment to be completed by mid-2010. He also emphasized that American forces would begin to wrap up operations in Afghanistan in July 2011.

Given that reinforcement numbers had leaked out in the days before the speech, the impact of the troop surge announcement was relatively muted in Kabul. Local attention focused mainly on the withdrawal timeframe, as well as on the lack of attention that Obama's speech gave to civilian-related issues and economic development.

By establishing a deadline for the start of a military drawdown, many local observers worried that Obama was setting the stage for failure. The general impression is that Afghan security forces will not be ready starting in 18 months to pick up the slack left by departing US troops.

"The question I have for Obama is: if they could not do the job in eight years, how can they ask the Afghan government to do the job in 18 months?" asked Shukriya Barakzai, a member of the Afghan parliament.

Sandeep Kumar, an international working with the UNDP on police reform and development, echoed Barakazi's concern "What is the 18-month time frame based on? We don't know yet. If this is about training and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces, then this will have to co-relate to the requirements of the training facilities, length of training period, and generally reaching a point where the security forces are able to carry out independent operations."

Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the main challenger to President Hamid Karzai in last summer's highly contentious presidential election, expressed support for the troop increase. But he questioned whether the Afghan government would be ready to assume responsibility for the security in two or three years, his spokesman stated.

In an interview with EurasiaNet conducted prior to Obama's speech, Russia's ambassador in Kabul, Andrey Avetisyan, expressed discomfort with any deadline for the departure of international troops. "I am afraid a date spoils the whole thing. When you have a date you relax and just wait for the date," Avetisyan said.

While skeptics were plentiful, Obama's plan found some support in Kabul. UN representatives welcomed the new strategy, with a spokesman saying the body viewed it as a "long-term commitment."

"It is good there is a timeline because you have to set yourself ambitious targets," the UN spokesman said.

Haroun Mir, a political analyst and founder of the director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS), was among the Afghan experts who were modestly encouraged by Obama's speech. "The situation can change even by the end of 2010 if there is good governance and justice delivered along with the military surge," he said.

Mir expressed the belief that Obama would not withdraw troops in large number right after deploying them at considerable cost, adding that his 18-month timeframe was probably geared toward his domestic audience. The summer of 2011 would roughly coincide with the opening of the 2012 presidential election campaign season.

While Obama's 18-month timeframe was only indicative of a cap on the number of US forces to be deployed, and the speech provided no specifics on the number of troops to be withdrawn in July 2011, some American analysts said the president would have to withdraw a substantial number of soldiers in order to be seen by the American electorate as keeping his promise.

"If Obama is to stick to his commitment, he will have to draw down his troops in sufficient numbers (after July 2011)" said John Dempsey, who heads the US Institute of Peace's Kabul office.

Dempsey said he worried that the July 2011 withdrawal announcement might send an encouraging message to the Taliban and other radical Islamic elements, who might now choose to bide their time until US troops start leaving. "It certainly could give them some sort of hope" Dempsey said.

In a bid to allay concerns that the United States might cut and run from Afghanistan, Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta and US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry met with local journalists briefly. They pointed to the facts that the United States is opening a consulate in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and that another consulate is planned for the western hub of Herat, as evidence that the US will maintain a long-term presence in Afghanistan.

Beyond the withdrawal issue, Barakzai, the Afghan MP, voiced disappointment that Obama's speech lacked substantive mention of humanitarian assistance and support for institution building, both of which are necessary for any transition to be successful.

Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch said there were no short-cuts to security. "There is no magic number of US troops that will bring security to Afghanistan," she said adding "what matters is what the troops are there to do, and how they can enhance a long-term strategy to improve Afghans' human rights."

Kumar also emphasized the need for a multi-pronged approach saying that "the Afghanistan situation is impacted by not just external factors, but also internal issues of civilian casualties, narcotics, governance and rule-of-law."

"There has to necessarily be a multi-dimensional approach," Kumar continued. "The real success of the surge in military troops announced can only be felt if there is a more focused convergence of military, political, governance and development approaches."

Editor's Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.

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