President's Afghanistan war strategy faces mounting challenges in year ahead

President Barack Obama met a key domestic goal by getting healthcare reform passed in the Senate by Christmas, but reaching the point where U.S. troops can begin to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2011 may prove a weightier challenge.

The new year will be a crucial testing ground for the Afghanistan strategy that took a back seat to domestic policy in 2009. Lawmakers were divided as Obama weighed a troop-surge recommendation from Gen. Stanley McChrystal and took heat from the Democratic Party's liberal wing for prolonging the conflict that began with the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001.

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Obama announced a month ago that 30,000 U.S. troops will be sent to Afghanistan "at the fastest pace possible" within the next six months. They'll try to turn the insurgent tide in a country with weak domestic security forces and a central government mired in internal strife and corruption allegations.

Adding to the problems is neighboring Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons. The Taliban has used the North-West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the border to regroup.

The security challenges that lay ahead were highlighted this week by the Thursday suicide bombing at an outpost in Khost province that killed seven CIA employees. The bomber, reportedly sent by the Taliban in Pakistan, had been courted as an informant and was invited onto the base without being searched, sources told the Associated Press.

"There is no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum," Obama said at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Dec. 1. "Al-Qaeda has not re-emerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe havens along the border.

"And our forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan security forces and better secure the population. ... In short, the status quo is not sustainable."

It also won't be known until a Jan. 28 meeting in London exactly how many troops other NATO countries will contribute to the effort from an earlier pledge of 7,000 troops. "One of the questions is how much are the European allies going to put up," Robert Hunter, who served as President Bill Clinton's ambassador to NATO, told The Hill.

The war in Afghanistan also will now compete for attention with Yemen, where al-Qaeda hatched the plot to bomb a Christmas Day Northwest Airlines flight headed for Detroit from Amsterdam.

"We can see the more we learn about the Christmas bombing attempt we could have another conflict on our hands in Yemen, and likewise in Somalia," John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador under President George W. Bush, told The Hill.

Yemen has responded to the Christmas incident by probing bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's potential contacts with al-Qaeda operatives there and by raiding an al-Qaeda hideout on Wednesday. Somalia's Al-Shabaab Islamist insurgent group pledged Friday to send hundreds of fighters to Yemen to aid al-Qaeda in its battle against the government there.

Hunter, now a senior adviser at RAND Corp., concurred that Yemen "is now being represented as a full-blown theater of concern," and "leaves part of the debate to shift from how are we doing in Afghanistan."


Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), for one, said last weekend that Yemen would be "tomorrow's war" if pre-emptive action is not taken to root out al-Qaeda there. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), one of the harshest critics of the White House in the wake of the bombing attempt, tweeted Saturday without elaborating that he had flown to Yemen over the New Year's break.

These additional requirements in combating terrorism, Bolton said, "could put a strain” on Obama’s policy.

The strategy in Afghanistan itself faces "Herculean tasks" of achieving adequate progress in security, reconstruction and development by Obama's stated 2011 withdrawal goal, Hunter said, adding it was "hard enough to do that timeframe in Iraq" and "extremely difficult in Afghanistan."

"Every month that goes on I think people are going to be raising more questions about when will this thing start working," Hunter said.

Adding to the scrutiny will be mounting casualty rates in Afghanistan. Compared with 148 in Iraq, 302 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan in 2009 -- the first year since the 2003 invasion of Iraq that the Afghanistan war has seem more American fatalities.

In announcing his strategy, Obama stressed a cross-border effort that would prevent the "cancer" of Taliban and al-Qaeda from coming into the country from Pakistan.

Yet events within Pakistan could change the whole ball game, Bolton said.

"I think this is a lot more complicated," he said. "I really think the stability of the government of Pakistan is more important from a strategic standpoint than the war in Afghanistan."

If the civilian government is seized by elements within the Pakistani army that align with the Taliban, there would then be "extremely dangerous radicals in charge of the nuclear arsenal," Bolton said. "You're not going to solve that problem exclusively focusing on a troop increase in Afghanistan."

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Another challenge coming at the troop surge is the Taliban's vow, in the group's end-of-year report, to launch widespread anti-coalition operations in April 2010.

"I don't see why they just don't wait until we leave," Bolton said, noting that the announced withdrawal date highlighted the "problem of the ambiguous nature with the Obama strategy."

Hunter said that while the Taliban won't win on the battlefield, what they can do through a rising number of suicide bombings is "keep what they do on the front page," trying "to demonstrate we are not succeeding by doing things that are magnified in the media."

There are still unknown variables that could positively influence the 2010 outcome in Afghanistan, ranging from potential deal-making between President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban to European allies helping the lagging nonmilitary efforts catch up.

But because "the magnitude of the issues out there are extraordinary," and because of the administration's lack of definition of what success will be, "I'm not holding my breath," Hunter said.

"I wish the president well, but next year in regard to Afghanistan is likely to be more problematic than this year," Hunter said Wednesday.