/ 27 March 2009

Obama’s new Afghan plan to target al-Qaeda safe havens

President Barack Obama plans to send thousands of troops to train Afghan forces as part of a new war strategy that will focus United States efforts on destroying al-Qaeda safe havens and rolling back the Taliban insurgency.

A Taliban commander poured scorn on the new plan, which Obama will announce at 9.25am, saying an injection of 4 000 troops would make no difference on the ground.

Three senior US administration officials said in a briefing before the announcement that Washington will reach out to Russia, China, India and even Iran in an ”aggressive regional effort” that also recognises Pakistan as part of the theatre of war.

”For the first time, we are approaching this problem as two countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan — but one challenge and one theatre for our diplomacy and our reconstruction efforts to work in. We see this as an integrated problem,” said one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The new strategy comes with violence in Afghanistan at its highest level since US-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001. The Islamist militia has sharply escalated its attacks, often operating from safe havens in tribal border regions of Pakistan.

Obama, who criticized his predecessor George Bush for becoming distracted by the Iraq war and allowing security to deteriorate in Afghanistan, ordered a review of US policy as one of his first official acts after taking office on January 20.

”This is not a reversion to a narrow War on Terror focus,” said Alex Thier, an Afghanistan expert at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

He said that although the Obama administration was talking about going after al-Qaeda, it was also committing to a broader effort to stabilise Afghanistan. ”This is a comprehensive approach to dealing with a critical, unstable region,” he said.

Under the plan, 4 000 military trainers will embed and partner with the Afghan military, while hundreds of US government civilian personnel will boost under-resourced reconstruction and development programs.

The trainers are in addition to the 17 000 troops Obama has already ordered sent to Afghanistan to help stabilise the country ahead of a presidential election in August.

”We want to move as aggressively and as quickly as possible to build up an Afghan army that is capable of defending its country and defeating the Taliban and al-Qaeda,” one of the officials said.

Britain was also ready to send more troops, the head of the British army told the Times newspaper, with part of a mechanised brigade once headed for Iraq now ”earmarked for Afghanistan”.

General Sir Richard Dannatt said there were no plans to send the whole brigade of about 4 000 but the number of British troops serving in Afghanistan could rise to ”somewhere in between” the current level of 8 300 and 12 000.

Disrupt and destroy
Taliban commander Mullah Hayat Khan scoffed at the US plan.

”Sending more troops will have no impact on the activities of the Taliban,” he said by telephone from an undisclosed location. The strategy will have a unified military goal — to disrupt, dismantle and eventually destroy al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan and prevent it from establishing safe havens in Afghanistan.

The officials said al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, were believed to be in an unknown location in Pakistan plotting fresh attacks on the US and its allies.

US-led forces invaded Afghanistan after al-Qaeda launched the September 11 2001 attacks on the US.

Initial descriptions of the strategy left many questions about Pakistan unanswered.

Many experts believe the nuclear-armed country’s instability and its al-Qaeda havens present a far greater threat to US national security than Afghanistan.

US drone attacks on suspected hideouts in tribal areas of the country began during the Bush administration and have continued under the new president, provoking anger in Pakistan.

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani security and political analyst, said drone attacks would continue but a strain would stay in relations between the US and Pakistan.

”The West considers Pakistan the main problem but the Pakistani government and non-official circles perceive themselves as innocent victims,” he said.

As part of a new diplomatic effort, the US will engage India, Russia, China and Iran. Obama’s special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, will hold bilateral meetings with Afghanistan and Pakistan every six to eight weeks.

Washington plans to expand the size of the Afghan army from about 80 000 to 134 000 and the police force from 78 000 to about 82 000. The US officials said further increases were possible.

”It is much cheaper in the long run to train Afghans to fight this war than it is to send Americans half way around the globe,” one official said.

In the short term, however, the current $2-billion-a-month cost of US military operations in Afghanistan are projected to increase by 60%, another official said. — Reuters