Obama's choice between more lives lost and the peril of al-Qaeda


AMERICA:The deadliest month for US troops in Afghanistan had made Obama’s decision on troop build-up more difficult, writes LARA MARLOWE

PRESIDENT BARACK Obama left the White House just before midnight on the previously unannounced journey to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the receiving point for the bodies of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US leader spent the early hours of Thursday morning with the families of 18 Americans killed in Afghanistan this week. He did not mention the decision that is weighing upon him – whether to dispatch another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he was heard to say repeatedly.

Under George W Bush, journalists were banned from the ceremonies which the military calls “dignified transfer”.

Obama changed the rule, on condition the next of kin agree to a media presence. Because one family gave permission, Obama was seen on television screens across America, standing straight in the pre-dawn chill, saluting the flag-draped case holding the remains of 29-year-old Sgt Dale Griffin.

“Obviously, the burden that both our troops and our families bear in any wartime situation is going to bear on how I see these conflicts,” Obama said later, back at the White House. “It is something that I think about each and every day.”

At a naval base in Florida on Monday, Obama was loudly applauded when he said: “I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way. I won’t risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary.”

At least 55 Americans were killed in Afghanistan this month, making it the most deadly of the eight-year war. The 18 killed this week died in a helicopter crash after a firefight with Taliban drug-traffickers, and in two roadside bombings.

On Wednesday the Taliban besieged a UN guesthouse in the heart of Kabul. Eleven people were killed, including the three attackers.

Yesterday, Obama met with his joint chiefs of staff to discuss Afghanistan.

Robert Gibbs, Obama’s spokesman, said the president’s decision on a troop build-up “could come at any moment,” though it was more likely to be weeks.

New York Timescolumnist Tom Friedman, who plays golf with Obama, says the US needs to “reduce its footprint . . . not dig in deeper” because “we simply do not have the Afghan partners, the Nato allies, the domestic support, the financial resources or the national interests” to justify a build-up.

Senator John Kerry, just back from Kabul, this week told the Council on Foreign Relations that the US does not yet have the necessary “guarantees of governance” to step up involvement. But conservatives argue the Afghan war is “winnable” and fear Obama lacks the tenacity and determination to see the course.

Wasted lives and resources, versus the peril of al-Qaeda regaining a foothold in Afghanistan: these contrasting visions of the war must have swirled in Obama’s brain as he saluted the dead on Thursday morning.

The Afghan war has already cost nearly 900 US lives and $243 billion (€165 billion). It costs $1 million to keep one US soldier in Afghanistan for one year.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has not helped the case for engagement. First he tried to steal the August election, then resisted US pressure to hold a run-off, now scheduled for November 7th. US officials told the New York Times that Karzai’s own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is on the CIA payroll, as well as trafficking in heroin and opium. The brother denies both charges, but the detailed report is convincing.

Proponents of a troop build-up say it would give the US time to strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, until they could fend for themselves. But after eight years of Nato occupation, the Afghan government is more corrupt than ever, and the country is a narco superpower that produces 90 per cent of the world’s heroin – hardly what you would call a propitious foundation.

The case was made strongly by Matthew Hoh, a former US Marine captain turned diplomat who recently became the first foreign service officer to resign over the Afghan war. “I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States presence in Afghanistan,” Hoh wrote in excerpts from his resignation letter published by the Washington Post. “My resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war but why and to what end.”

In neighbouring Pakistan, too, the US seems to flounder. A car bomb in Peshawar killed more than 100 people hours after Hillary Clinton’s arrival on Wednesday.

Pakistan is supposed to be an ally in the war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but the US secretary of state scolded her hosts, saying, “Al-Qaeda has had safe haven in Pakistan since 2002 . . . I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to.”

Polls show the vast majority of Pakistanis distrust and dislike the US, and Clinton received a cold reception.

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