U.S. President Barack Obama announced Friday a new strategy for Afghanistan that boosts strategic efforts while increasing the focus on al-Qaida and Pakistan.
Obama had earlier announced he would send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan following admissions from top military strategists in Washington that the war effort there was lost.
The announcement comes as the U.S.-led military conflict in Iraq winds down, with American troops preparing to pull out of major cities by the summer and withdraw from the country completely by 2011.
The new Obama strategy embraces plans to persuade moderate Taliban elements to join the international effort in Afghanistan. The plan is modeled in part on the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, which employed former Sunni insurgents to take up arms against al-Qaida fighters in western Anbar province.
"I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future," the president said. "That is the goal that must be achieved. That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you."
The strategy, however, is met with a degree of skepticism from some analysts, who point to the different tribal structures and in each country, saying Afghanistan is not Iraq.
In addition to the 17,000-strong troop surge, hundreds of diplomats and civilian experts will deploy to Afghanistan to assist in reconstruction and governing challenges. Meanwhile, 4,000 military trainers from the 82nd Airborne Division will work toward strengthening the Afghan army to 134,000 troops and the police force to 82,000.
That effort too has been questioned by analysts. Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, writes in The Washington Quarterly that accepted counterinsurgency doctrine calls for 20 security personnel for every 1,000 civilians, suggesting Afghanistan needs roughly 600,000 troops to accomplish the objectives there.
Meanwhile, calling the effort there regional, the Obama administration said it would offer $1.5 billion to Pakistan in non-military assistance while expanding attacks in the volatile tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
10th Mountain Division test for Afghan effort
The deployment of 3,500 troops with the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division near Kabul may provide a test case for the new Washington strategy for Afghanistan.
As part of an early contingent of the 17,000 additional U.S. troops planned for Afghanistan, the 10th Mountain Division is scattered across the Wardak and Logar provinces in an attempt to court local leaders and fighters to tackle security issues there, London's The Daily Telegraph reports.
The area just south of Kabul province was once considered Taliban territory, where rebel leaders like the Taliban's Mullah Mohammed Omar and warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is a former prime minister, hold sway.
"This time last summer the perception was, whether it be real or just a perception, that the enemy was at the gates of Kabul," U.S. Lt. Col. Kimo Gallahue said.
U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled his new strategy for Afghanistan on Friday, calling for a "civilian surge" and military trainers to support the revamped effort for the beleaguered country.
Military commanders in Afghanistan say a grass-roots effort to find Afghan solutions to Afghan problems may bring improvement to the country, but the success or failure of the strategy may be the ultimate test for the Obama administration.
Russia holds major Afghan conference
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hosts top U.N., Arab and Persian leaders Friday at a major regional conference on the Afghan security situation.
The meeting, organized by the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization, tackles the growing insurgency in Afghanistan as well as spiraling issues stemming from the opium trade.
Medvedev met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, in the first meeting between the Russian and Arab leaders, Itar-Tass reports.
"We are deeply convinced that Russia and the Islamic world will continue to actively interact within the framework of various bodies of the U.N. system and in other formats for searching for the methods of just settlement of problems of the contemporary international life," said Medvedev, the Russian president.
Moscow organized the SCO meeting on Afghanistan in order to coordinate regional and international efforts on counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics in the war-torn nation.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the conference would issue a comprehensive action plan that outlines specific measures to tackle the issues facing Afghanistan.
The Moscow conference comes just days before the international community convenes at The Hague, Netherlands, for a major summit on Afghanistan proposed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
June pullout date in Iraq uncertain
Baghdad may ask U.S. military forces to stay active in Mosul and other parts of Iraq beyond a June deadline to pull out of major cities, a U.S. commander said.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, said he expects Baghdad to ask for a sustained military engagement in the volatile Diyala province and in the northern city of Mosul, where al-Qaida forces remain active.
"In Mosul and Diyala (province), as we do a combined or joint assessment of the situation on the ground, I have every expectation that both sides will say we need to stay with this a little bit longer until this improves," he told The Christian Science Monitor.
U.S. President Barack Obama called for a halt to combat operations in Iraq by August 2010. Under the terms of a bilateral Status of Forces Agreement signed by the previous administration, U.S. forces are obliged to pull out of major cities by June and redeploy completely by 2011.
U.S. officials also questioned whether American troops would deploy to the south in the wake of an anticipated withdrawal of British forces in Basra, where national security forces are absent following an Iraqi-led assault there last summer.
"I think the Iraqis know that there are some things that have to occur before we leave," Austin said. "They know that there are some capabilities that they have to develop. I think they'll be up to task when we do leave by 2011."
Northern Iraq a concern, Odierno says
Despite recent security gains, disputes between the Kurdish government and Baghdad threaten stability if left unmitigated, the top U.S. commander there said.
U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno said one of the biggest challenges facing strategists in Iraq is simmering tension between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government in Baghdad.
"What I'm concerned about is I want those (tensions) to be dealt with diplomatically and politically and not through violence," he told National Public Radio.
U.S. military officials have focused their efforts on finding a negotiated settlement to the dispute, which is based in part over authority over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces remain a point of contention. Though Iraq has outlawed armed divisions other than national forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga are allowed to patrol certain areas of Iraq.
Disputes between Iraqi national forces and the Peshmerga nearly erupted into violence last summer over control of the northern Iraqi city of Khanaqin, which lies within the so-called disputed territories.
Odierno said it was his responsibility to see that those disputes do not erupt into conflict should relations between the KRG and Baghdad turn sour.
"Our role is to ensure that it does not come to violence and it's solved in a peaceful way," he said.
Bureaucracy hampers Mosul reconstruction
Tensions between local councils in Mosul and government reconstruction committees are delaying vital projects in the embattled city, officials said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sanctioned the use of some $100 million for a special reconstruction committee for local services in the wake of a May 2008 offensive in the northern Ninawa province.
Local officials, however, complained of marginalization and redundant hiring practices that left much of those funds wasted, the Iraqi political Web site Niqash.org reports.
"Contrary to the aims of its creation, the commission has not yet provided people with any service, and its projects have become a new burden on the people," Mosul District Commissioner Zuhair al-Araji said.
Officials with the commission, however, blame local officials for not following through with employment contracts and other reconstruction provisions. Furthermore, the reconstruction commission points to several projects, from street redevelopment to solar-energy projects, that were implanted under the plan.
Provincial officials complained, however, that despite a hefty reconstruction budget, security in the north, where al-Qaida forces still operate, has hampered much of the general development there.