U.S. President Barack Obama’s dispatch of 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan starting next year may fail to win over a population that has endured 31 years of civil war and economic hardship.
“America has increased its troops in Afghanistan many times in the past eight years, but it hasn’t improved security,” said Sayed Mahmoud Saikal, an independent political consultant in Kabul who got up early to watch the speech on CNN.
As Obama addressed an audience at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, Kabul TV stations carried early morning readings from the Koran. Many households in the capital were unlit, with only a few people returning home from early-morning prayers.
Obama gave no indication of how the additional U.S. troops will be used, and said little on where they will be sent. While the new troops are to be deployed by mid-2010, he said the U.S. will begin withdrawing forces a year later.
From news reports, “we have heard that America will send about 30,000 additional troops,” said Akhtar Mohammad, a Taliban commander in Uruzgan, a mountainous central province where the guerrillas have an active presence. “If they do that, they will not be able to finish off the Taliban because God is behind us and will protect us,” Mohammad said in a telephone interview before Obama spoke.
While Afghans broadly tolerate the foreign troop presence as the only way to stabilize their country, according to opinion polls published this year by the BBC and Asia Foundation, residents interviewed yesterday disagreed about whether additional troops will be helpful and where they should be sent.
‘Bombings, Suicide Attacks’
“Increasing foreign troops means an increase in insecurity,” said Ahmad Jawid, 28, a Kabul university student. “Wherever they are, there have been bombings, suicide attacks and violence.”
Obama said a key U.S. goal will be to secure Afghan cities, where Taliban have mounted increasing attacks this year via suicide bombings and commando raids, and to accelerate the development of Afghan troops and police to take over security.
Obama sent an extra 17,000 combat troops and 4,000 trainers early this year, which allowed U.S. forces to advance for the first time into the southern province of Helmand, a key Taliban stronghold. While that U.S. offensive has disrupted Taliban operations in Helmand, the Taliban may regroup once warmer weather returns. Pinning the guerillas back in Helmand has also pushed them to step up the fight in other areas, including in the north, relatively stable until now.
Some of the new troops should be sent to Helmand to allow the establishment of stable government there for the first time since the U.S. toppled the Taliban in 2001, said Daud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial government. “Helmand is a huge province and requires extra forces to block the Taliban’s access” from bases in neighboring Pakistan, he said by telephone.
Southern Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have bases, should get the biggest part of the new U.S. forces, said Haroun Mir, director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, an independent think tank in the capital. Still, some of the new troops “will have to be deployed to the provinces around Kabul” to improve security in the capital, Mir said by phone.
Other Afghans, including government officials, say the focus of U.S. strategy should be on reaching a political solution with the Taliban. “More troops are not needed,” said Kunduz Governor Muhammad Omar. “Fighting is not a solution and the international community as well as the Afghan government should pave the way for a diplomatic solution.”
Former Pakistan military ruler Pervez Musharraf, writing in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today, said military efforts must be backed up by political dialogue with all groups, including the Taliban.
“Armies can only win sometimes, and at best, create an environment for the political process to work,” Musharraf wrote. “At the end of the day, it is civilians, not soldiers, who have to take charge of their country.”
He also called for a strengthening of border-control measures to isolate Taliban militants on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan boundary.
“Quitting is not an option,” Musharraf wrote. “We must eliminate al-Qaeda, dominate the Taliban militarily, and establish a representative, legitimate government in Afghanistan.”