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Afghanistan: Searching for an Exit

Another of the administration’s most momentous decisions came early in its tenure. The deteriorating war in Afghanistan cried out for a lifeline. Ironically, the Obama campaign had leveled most of its criticisms against George W. Bush for the Iraq War and on Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, for mimicking George W. Bush’s Iraq policy. Iraq, in this sense, eclipsed Afghanistan as the foremost foreign policy issue at the start of the new government. But the fighting in Iraq had dramatically fallen off by this time. Soon after the election, the campaign’s winners were compelled to look again at Afghanistan, not Iraq. A month before President-elect Obama’s inauguration, Afghanistan notably re-entered the nation’s consciousness. A senior Defense Department official conveyed the sense of urgency when he called for a “tourniquet of some kind” to staunch the swelling violence and the Taliban advances in the South-Central Asian nation.10

Days after taking the oath of office, President Obama declared his intention to deploy as many as 30,000 additional combat and support troops to Afghanistan over the spring and summer to strengthen the already 36,000 US personnel in the strife-torn country. Counting NATO and other foreign militaries in the ISAF, the new total was to reach 90,000 soldiers by late August. Additionally, Washington committed to a 50 percent growth in civilian officials, reaching over 900 to administer nation-building and administrative functions. In all, this upsurge in personnel led to a further Americanization of the counterinsurgency effort.11 Plans were also laid to expand the Afghan army, police, and border guards to 400,000 over the next three years at an estimated cost of $12 billion. Obama officials spoke of a narrowed goal that differed from their predecessors. Even though the still-nascent administration beefed up US troops in Afghanistan, its representatives expressed reduced ambitions for American goals. They articulated a shift toward targeting al Qaeda rather than what they termed the lofty nation-building and democracy-enhancing endeavors of the Bush administration. Standing up Afghanistan’s own defense capability was so the United States could concentrate on the terrorist threat.12 Preparing for an American exit necessitated a buildup of the Afghan National Army, police force, and border guards.13 Before the US drawdown date arrived, Obama wanted to zero in on al Qaeda, but the Taliban pressed their attacks, requiring a US counteroffensive to save Afghanistan from falling to them. Public opinion polls still favored an active engagement in the landlocked country. A Washington Post-ABC poll indicated that 56 percent believed that “Afghanistan was worth fighting for,” while 41 percent held it “was not worth” the fight (only 3 percent had no opinion).14 These sentiments made Obama’s job easier, at least in the near term. But before long, the US citizens tired of this war too.

Also early on in his administration, the president ordered a step up in drone (unmanned aerial vehicles) air strikes on Taliban targets inside Pakistan. In time, the prolific use of drone bombardments inside Pakistan and elsewhere turned into a controversial aspect of Obama’s counterterrorism campaign.15 Together with increased drone strikes, the president called for a regionwide diplomatic strategy encompassing Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, for which Richard Holbrooke, of Dayton glory, assumed the job as special envoy. The veteran diplomat also actively reviewed what fresh initiatives to Iran and Russia would be useful to the United States. Holbrooke’s remit included moving Pakistan closer to America’s policy for ending the conflict in Afghanistan and for improving US relations with the Greater Middle East. The energetic Holbrooke made some progress before his untimely death. But generally the famed interlocutor ran into personal and political opposition from Obama’s inner circle, which impaired his mission.16 After Holbrooke’s death, the Obama administration never again paid Pakistan the same level of attention.

Other policy departures from the preceding administration soon followed. President Obama set a widely different course for American counterterrorism than Bush had. Signaling the new direction, administration officials backed away from George Bush’s routinely uttered phrase the “global war on terror.” In an e-mailed memo, the Obama’s Pentagon requested the use of “overseas contingency operations” rather than the signature expression of the former president, which implied an expansive global conflict rather than specific military actions.17

 
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