COLUMN: President Obama's troop strategy leaves questions

Friday, December 4, 2009 | 3:29 p.m. CST

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: The White House study of the war in Afghanistan has ended, and President Barack Obama has announced his decision to send 30,000 more troops. He said that the American-led military would bring the war to a point where he could begin withdrawing forces 18 months from now. The reaction to the speech in this country was mixed, and the most vocal criticism came from members of his own Democratic Party in Congress. There are a number of problems in Afghanistan that make the success of this new strategy questionable: corruption in the regime of Hamid Karzai, the inability of many Afghan troops and police to fight, and the belief that the country is just too large for the 150,000 troops. How can this new strategy work?

Aunohita Mojumdar, freelance correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, Kabul, Afghanistan: Afghans have gotten very mixed signals from this strategy. Are the U.S. troops coming or going? There has been an increase of 30,000, and the number was no longer a surprise by the time it was announced. The fact being debated here now is the 18-month time frame Obama has set out.

Loory: Eighteen months is too soon? Among people who feel that there can be a success in this strategy, how long do they say it will take?

Mojumdar: In order to recruit the numbers which are considered desirable for a handover and to train them for a sufficient capacity, four years is considered minimum. Obama has not said that he will withdraw all the troops in 18 months or indicated how many he will withdraw or at what time. But, if conditions here now necessitate 30,000 troops, why does the White House feel that in 18 months they can begin pulling it back?

Loory: How do you deal with that?

Philip Elliott, White House reporter, Associated Press, Washington, D.C.: Officials at the White House were telling us this is the first step. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress there does appear to be some flexibility. The White House said everything in this plan is contingent on what is happening on the ground. Things aren’t going well in Afghanistan. The election had some serious problems in the view of many U.S. officials. The massive corruption within the Karzai government is a serious concern, especially for the people at the State Department. In the last few years, as the U.S. shifted its focus to Iraq, Kabul deteriorated. There were no consequences for malfeasance, and they took advantage of having tacit approval from the U.S. for this corrupt behavior.

Loory: One of the people involved in the corruption was Karzai’s brother, and there were indications that he was supported by the CIA. Now the U.S. wants him disciplined, will this happen?

Mojumdar: I doubt it. Whether or not he was involved in corruption, the fact is that one arm of the U.S. government is actually funding him and the other arm is asking for action against him. What impacts most Afghans on a day to day basis is not Hamid Karzai’s brother but corruption at a localized level, when they go to a health clinic or for education. America keeps looking at individuals, whereas what is needed is to look at institutions. If you strengthen the institutions then there is less chance for corruption, rather than looking for Mr. Clean to put everything in place.

Loory: Why is Canada pulling its troops out of Afghanistan at the same time that other countries are increasing their forces there?

Mitch Potter, Washington bureau chief, Toronto Star, Canada: There is a paradox in Canada. The Canadians are still enamored by this president and also extremely impatient to get out of Afghanistan. There is political unanimity on that question. Parliament has voted to end Canada’s combat efforts in 2011. Canadians recognize that Obama didn’t have any good choices in preparing for this decision. About everybody in Canada has grown up understanding that our armed forces are peace keepers. So, this difficult assignment with Canada having Kandahar Province for the past eight years has been a trauma to our country. We have seen the highest per capita casualty rates of any NATO nation in Afghanistan. If there were measurable progress, there might be more support, but Canadians haven’t seen it. What they have seen is the difficulty of trying to play that good scout role in such a complex place as Afghanistan.

Loory: Germany has the third largest contingent in Afghanistan after the U.S. and the United Kingdom and it looks like Angela Merkel will increase that contingent.

Greg Benzow, senior editor, Deutsche Welle Radio, English service, Bonn, Germany: Germany wants to increase its troops by a third more, except those are not going to be active combat forces. Germany, much like Canada, sees itself as a peacekeeping army. Germany believes that the only long-term solution to Afghanistan is to get an infrastructure up and running that benefits the local population. The majority of Germans do not want to be there. Merkel, being a strong U.S. ally and a key member of NATO, can’t shirk her responsibility, so Germany has to participate.

Loory: Building infrastructure is the same thing that Obama says the U.S. wants to do. How much of this new plan will go towards rebuilding governance?

Elliott: The $30 billion price tag on this operation has left people very squeamish in Washington, coming from an economy that is struggling. The unemployment rate is at 10.2 percent. The White House is bracing for the newest numbers, which they expect will be dire. The one place he might be able to do this, is the systemic improvement to governance. Instead of having control of the Senate and the House, the Democrats might be the ones, more than the Republicans, to torpedo the president’s plan.

Loory: Is General Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, in line?

Elliott: So far, he appears to be. He stepped out early in this process, getting under the skin of political appointees in the White House. He basically got what he wanted. He asked for 40,000 troops. He received 30,000 U.S. troops and, if the White House gets its way, 10,000 NATO troops. For him to speak out against this plan would be to contradict what he asked for.

Loory: Can the defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaida really be carried out without the involvement of the Pakistanis even more than they are involved now?

Mojumdar: The insurgents on both sides are using each other's territory to regroup and regain strength. Operations have to be carried out simultaneously, otherwise they are going to melt away and return in force later.

Elliott: That is the question that everyone is asking but no one is answering publicly. Privately, officials keep coming back to: “How do you invade a U.S. ally?” By all military accounts the drone strikes have been successful, but there will not be an entire brigade march from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Pakistan is, for better or worse, a U.S. ally, and the White House is very sensitive to not only keeping them an ally but also not offending their people. When Secretary Clinton was there, she was taken aback by the visceral distrust from the Pakistani people to the U.S.

Loory: How stable is the government in Pakistan these days?

Mojumdar: There does seem to be an extremely serious situation. The military dictator the U.S. supported allowed the disintegration of all secular parties and institutions of governance. What were fringe elements of fundamentalism have come into the main stream.

Elliott: The re-emergence of the Taliban, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan, is one of the reasons the president took so long. He wanted to get a full understanding of what they meant by “Taliban.” There is the hardcore Taliban, the true believers, and the institutional Taliban that was the former government. Then there is what they call the (hired) Taliban . They’re not totally on board, but they do not have a safe alternative. They are viewed by the U.S. as persuadable. The U.S. thinks that through working from the bottom up, they might be able to move the people away from the Taliban.

Loory: President Obama has taken on a tough job for himself, for the U.S., for the western world, and the people of two nations embroiled in a terrible tragedy. But, the outcome will affect the whole world’s well being for years to come.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, Melissa Ulbricht, and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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