By Simon Assaf
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Obama’s new strategy as the US faces defeat in Afghanistan

This article is over 15 years, 3 months old
When Barack Obama takes office on 20 January next year he will be handed a document crafted by Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff.
Issue 2128

When Barack Obama takes office on 20 January next year he will be handed a document crafted by Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff.

This document will spell out a shift in US strategy to manage its defeat in what used to be called the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan.

Mullen wants the new president to adopt a ‘regional approach’ to the occupation as well as redrawing the ‘battle map’ so that US troops can conduct incursions into the tribal regions of northern Pakistan.

The US military hopes that the glow of popularity surrounding Obama will make it difficult for its allies to refuse the request for more troops. It looks like Obama has succeeded even before taking his seat in the White House.

Germany has eased restrictions on its soldiers joining in the fighting, while Britain is planning to add a further 2,000 troops to the 8,000 it already has deployed there. France has already sent more troops.

But this new burst of faith cannot hide mounting problems. Obama faces the question of how to turn regional enemies like Iran into partners in Afghanistan.

The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have dragged the US military into a deep quagmire.


Obama would like to pull troops out of Iraq and deploy them in Afghanistan. But this plan is making the military very nervous. The US situation is Iraq remains perilous.

Although there is a tentative agreement over the negotiations for the Status of Forces agreement, rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced on Friday that he would refuse to accept any deal short of the full withdrawal of foreign troops.

Meanwhile US generals are warning that any rushed retreat from Iraq would mean the military abandoning much of its equipment.

The bleeding away of support for the Bush wars has generated deep frustrations inside the military.

These have led to rumours that the US is planning to take over control of the occupation of Afghanistan from Nato – the military alliance that runs it at the moment.

Any such move would further sour relations with its allies. Hence the new US strategy of a ‘regional approach’. This involves drawing in Afghanistan’s neighbours – Iran, Russia and Pakistan – to try and turn the tide of defeat.

The US needs Iran’s compliance, if not its direct cooperation, to wage its wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Iran shares a long and relatively quiet border with Afghanistan, and it enjoys some influence among sections of the Afghan insurgency.

The regional approach for the US would draw Iran into helping to pull the ‘moderate Taliban’ away from the ‘hardliners’ and into a compromise with the Afghan government.

Much of the chatter in the US media is that Iran and the US share a great deal in common. They both mistrust the Wahhabi Islamist ideology that underpins the Taliban and Al Qaida.

This is neat spin, but it hides another, more important problem. The Wahhabi Islamists have spread fear and death among Shia Muslims, but they cannot overrun Iran or annihilate its economy – only the US can do this. For Iran, the US remains a dangerous enemy camped on its borders.

Iran has emerged out of the US debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq greatly strengthened. So now the new US administration will have to balance its need for Iran’s cooperation with unease over its drive to master nuclear technology.

A further problem lies with Pakistan. Over the past few months the Pakistani army has launched a massive onslaught in the tribal regions along the Afghan border.

This ongoing offensive has put Pakistan’s insurgents on the back foot, but there is no guarantee of victory. And time is running out. Pakistan faces deepening economic and political troubles brought on by the ‘war on terror’.

And then there is Russia. US plans to place its missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic have raised tensions in eastern Europe.

Russia has pulled out of arms limitation talks and has deployed short range nuclear missiles along its western border. This nuclear warning further complicates US strategy in Afghanistan.


The occupiers were relying on Russia to open a military supply route through its territory to ease the pressure on supplies winding their way through hostile regions of Pakistan.

The Russians are demanding a series of ‘compromises’ over the defence shield in return.

Last week the US was humiliated when Pakistani rebels hijacked 20 trucks of supplies and several humvees. Pakistani authorities have now closed this route, leaving occupation troops temporarily cut off.

A joke doing the rounds in Washington is that the main difference between Lyndon Johnson – the Democratic president who presided over the Vietnam war – and Obama is that Johnson only inherited one military disaster, but Obama has inherited two.

By invading Afghanistan and Iraq, George Bush wanted to project US power. Instead he has revealed its limitations.

Obama will face insurmountable problems and an intractable and dangerously unstable occupation unless he brings all the troops out.

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