US surge in Afghanistan to extend beyond plan for troop withdrawal

 

THE US surge in Afghanistan is likely to continue long beyond US president Barack Obama’s initial plan to withdraw troops in large numbers this year.

Some US officials anticipate the drawdown scheduled for this year will be relatively modest – even though Mr Obama had intended to “push the curve to the left” in the 30,000-strong surge, accelerating its deployment and withdrawal.

One factor is the presence of US and Nato commander in the field Gen David Petraeus. He is a uniquely authoritative figure because of his commanding success in Iraq and he has made clear his opposition to a precipitous withdrawal. He made no mention of the July date in a recent letter to troops on the challenges ahead.

The Pentagon this week reacted to reports that Gen Petraeus was slated to depart by insisting no decision had been made and that he would not be leaving “any time soon”.

Typically, top Nato and US commanders in Afghanistan stay in their post no longer than 18 months, which would take Gen Petraeus, who started in July 2010, to the end of this year.

Speaking recently, he signalled that he would outline to the White House the risks of withdrawals that were too big or too fast. He said he would provide Mr Obama with drawdown options “with assessments of risk for each course of action, and then a recommendation on how to initiate the responsible drawdown of the surge forces”.

The US has already adopted a common Nato-wide objective of transferring the lead in the battle against the Taliban to local forces by 2014 and retaining a military presence in the country beyond that date.

“I don’t know if I would describe it as slow. But I certainly would describe it as deliberate,” said a US military official, referring to the pace of change between 2011 and 2014.

“We are going to be sending troops home in July, there’s no question about that . . . but this isn’t just about withdrawal, it’s also about transition, the hand-over of authority,” the official added.

He highlighted that some troops would hand districts over to Afghan control only to move on to other areas.

The Pentagon’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year anticipates that US forces would remain at the existing level of 98,000. However, defence secretary Robert Gates said this was for reasons of prudence and that it was a “cinch” that troop numbers would come down.

Appearing at a Senate hearing yesterday, he said the July 2011 date had been the “most difficult” part of the Afghan strategy for him to accept, and discussed, for illustrative reasons, the effect of a possible 1 per cent to 2 per cent US drawdown on the commitment of Washington’s allies.

Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, said: “At this moment it doesn’t look like a significant drawdown is on the cards, but I think there are some moves before the game is really over.”

He highlighted the domestic unpopularity of the war for Mr Obama and Gen Petraeus’ eventual departure as factors.

“As long as Petraeus is in Kabul, the commander-in-chief is going to have to deal with a commanding officer who in some quarters wields as much authority as the president does. In a post-Petraeus era the military is going to have [a] more difficult time getting its own way,” he said.

Next month Afghan president Hamid Karzai is due to unveil areas for transition to control by local forces.