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The Afghanistan Surge and Dubious Rationales

The Afghanistan Surge and Dubious Rationales

by Reuben Steff

US President Obama outlines his strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan at West Point.
White House Photo, Pete Souza, 12/1/09.

Speaking recently at West Point US President Barack Obama laid out his new strategy for the Afghan war that includes injecting an additional 30,000 troops into the country. He said that this is to be done for two reasons: The first is to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven, the second is to arrest the Taliban's momentum and lay the groundwork to enable the Afghan army to carry on the war, thus allowing the US to begin removing troops in 2011. The fact of the matter is that 30,000 extra troops are unlikely to change the situation on the ground, while Obama did not outline the speed with which the drawdown would take place.

The 2011 timeline itself is suspect, with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton immediately stating that the administration is “not talking about an exit strategy” and Obama’s national security advisor saying that it could be subject to change since America has “other interests in South Asia that should not be measured in terms of finite times”.

Obama’s speech, if anything, is a good time in which to reassess the official rationale for the Afghan war, the importance of Pakistan to the conflict, the significance of having a timeline and America’s broader grand strategy in the region.

The Rationale

The rationale that the Afghan surge is necessary to prevent Al Qaeda from securing a safe haven is dubious. The capabilities of the central Al Qaeda group which carried out the attacks of 9/11 are now negligible while Al Qaeda has failed in its overarching strategic goals.

Their primary strategic goal of creating a multinational Islamic empire under Shariah law looks increasingly distant, if it ever had a chance at all. The general idea was that a display of power by Al Qaeda – represented by a successful military attack against the military, economic and political symbols of American power - would mobilise the Muslim masses to rise up against American-backed regimes. This did not happen, and any support the Al Qaeda leadership gained from that attack has been destroyed by attacks against Muslim people throughout the Middle East.

Furthermore, the argument that the Taliban will provide safe haven to groups like Al Qaeda is flawed. The evidence in recent years shows a fundamental schism has emerged between Al Qaeda and the Taliban. They were never one and the same and the Taliban would have less reason to provide safe haven today to such groups than it did before 9/11. After all, it forced them from power once, why not again?

If that was not enough there is the fact that a senior US intelligence official recently told ABC News that there were less than 100 Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan and that they pose no military threat to Afghanistan or to the US.

The Pakistani Pivot

The key to Afghanistan is Pakistan. It is the Cambodia in the ‘Af-Pak’ conflict - it is where the Afghan Taliban can retreat to rest, attain supplies, intelligence and other forms of support. Thus a central part of Obama’s strategy will be to increase pressure on Pakistan to disrupt these supply lines. But this comes with certain 'blowback' for the Pakistani state - as we've seen in the recent spate of bombings and attacks in Pakistani cities.

Pakistan ‘created’ the Taliban to use as an instrument in its struggle with India. But now it will come under increased pressure to help destroy it. If Pakistan is unable, or unwilling, to provide the necessary help to the US it is not beyond reason to think America will start military intervening in Pakistan (beyond the counterproductive drone strikes that are taking place). In fact, that may be one of the reasons why Obama is sending in 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan - to free up the necessary forces to cross into Pakistan should it become necessary.

The Significance of a Timeline

The mere act of announcing a timeline to begin withdrawal is significant in itself - it sends a message to multiple actors and is intended to give a sense of urgency to the overall mission: US generals now face a 'fixed' timeline in which to 'do the job' and Afghan forces must reconcile themselves to the fact that they will be taking over the American mission. Obama is trying to change facts on the ground by altering the the psychology of American and Afghani forces.

The timeline also tells the Taliban that America does not intend to remain indefinitely. Like the Vietnamese insurgents during the Vietnam War, the Taliban are sure to outlast any external power, for they are a locally based phenomenon and are willing to suffer great pain relative to the occupying power.

In this limited context Obama’s statement makes sense, but on a global level may prove counterproductive.

For example the Russians now know that, if everything goes to plan, American military forces will be coming out of the Middle East in 2011. This will readdress the massive imbalance in the international system where the overwhelming military power of America has been unable to come to the aid of its allies or deploy itself in response to regional challenges. This has led to a window of opportunity for regional powers like Russia to reassert themselves.

It leaves the Russkies with approximately one year - 2010 - in which to continue their geopolitical resurgence around their ‘near abroad’ and lock down their sphere of influence that now stretches across much of Central Asia, parts of Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Caucuses.

There are two other possible reasons for the surge: Obama's domestic political position and concerns related to the Central Asian energy grid.

Domestic Politics

As we saw in Vietnam, and has been shown many times since, it is extremely hard for American presidents to engage in pragmatic deals with its adversaries. If one does so they are labelled an 'appeaser' or a 'liberal’ - both of which are dirty words in American politics. To ‘retreat’ without at least making it look as though Obama has done ‘all he can’ to win the Afghan war would open up room for Republicans to lambast Obama.

Meanwhile the American population want to get out of the Middle East. In fact, recent polls show a strong isolationist trend in their preferences. But in being largely separated from the American political process (let alone cognizant of foreign policy at all) the opinion of the American masses does not really matter. At least it doesn't matter until the next election. Obama was voted in, in part, because he created the impression that he was an ‘anti-war’ president. But he has not acted as an antiwar president. With this in mind a ‘commitment’ to a rhetorical 'pull-out' date, even while escalating a war aids Obama because, in an odd way, it still allows Obama to hold onto the mantle of being an 'antiwar' president. He is only 'pro-war' until 2011 - when he will start bringing the troops home. By 2012, when the next election is held, America should be reducing its troop presence in the Middle East, which would prove to be a massive election boon.

Afghanistan and Grand Strategy

But there is another theory we cannot discount - that Obama does not intend to leave Afghanistan at all and that changing 'conditions on the ground' will be used to justify the maintenance of a large military presence in Afghanistan indefinitely. But why? Well, the best articulation of this can be found in the writings of the roving reporter Pepe Escobar. Escobar contends that America’s geopolitical priorities in the region mean that its primary goal is to maintain a foothold over 'Pipelinistan' - the massive and growing energy network that underlies Central Asia and the Middle East. The point would not be to attain absolute control over the regions energy networks but to be able to threaten the producers with American military power should they start to co-operate under the auspices of an East Asian NATO-style alliance – one that could be led by Russia and China. The primary vehicle for this would be the nascent mutual-security organisation known as the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) that includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (with Iran holding ‘observer’ status). Ensuring no single power, or alliance of powers, can dominate the Eurasian landmass has been the central feature of US grand strategy since the end of World War II.

Internal American documents, as well as official statements, have continuously stressed the importance of the Middle East, and the wider region, to the maintenance of secure energy supplies. The US state department argues that the Middle East is "a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the great material prizes in world history" and the most "strategically important area in the world".

For the world’s only global superpower, one that has explicitly stated its desire to maintain a unipolar world order, the Middle East is a region it cannot let slip from its grasp. This isn’t a conspiracy theory – It’s just US grand strategy.


More terrorist attacks will be conducted against the West and western interests. That is assured, and could come from a number of groups with legitimate historical grievances (70 years of American intervention in the third world has created a host of enemies). But a threat emanating from the central Al Qaeda group that planned and carried out 9/11 is now practically nonexistent. This belies Obama’s official rational for continuing to fight in Afghanistan, or any suggestion that Al Qaeda is an ‘existential’ threat to America or the west.

The prospects for Obama’s strategy appear dim. It is a gamble, reliant upon the actions of Pakistan, while any talk of a pull out appears dubious. At the least America will be forced to arm, train and advise Afghan forces for the foreseeable future. As such, American interference in the Afghan conflict looks set to continue indefinitely and for reasons that go beyond the need to ‘defeat’ Al Qaeda and the Taliban. After all, as Obama’s national security advisor noted, America has ‘other interests’ in the region.


Reuben Steff is currently writing his PhD thesis on 'Deterrence Theory and Ballistic Missile Defence' at Otago University. He encourages comments, criticisms or thoughts. You can e-mail him at stere538[at] His blog is

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