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Afghanistan. Obama announces surge of 30,000 troops and beginning of pull-out in 2011

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Some long weeks, now it seems, have passed in which the world has tensely waited for the final decision of the “Commander-in-Chief” on how the United States future strategy for Afghanistan will look like. 

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Various numbers and figures were circulated in the media, interspersed by the one of the other defence official or expert: How many troops? How many allied troops? When to pull out? This past week, US President Barack Obama produced the long-anticipated answers to these questions at a West Point speech. As most allies would not dare to lift a finger in such an important issue as the very future of Afghanistan and their commitment to this historic task before their largest partner did not clarify its stance and intentions, yesterday’s speech seemed to be a clearance to the entire political and military landscape. Now the important work of establishing a stabilised Afghanistan can finally be tackled as everyone knows which direction the Alliance is taking.

And the heading is quite clear: a significant number of troops from the US and, as hoped by the Obama administration, from its international allies, will be deployed to Afghanistan to create a stable military and political environment in the Central Asian country as fast as possible. And both key factors of this decision – “how many” and “how long” – have been given in specific numbers by the US President: 30,000 US troops will be sent to Afghanistan during the first half of 2010 and (what is even more impressive) the United States will begin to pull out troops as early as July 2011. Even if this date is only the beginning of a long ensuing process of handing over responsibility to the Afghans, it is remains a narrow schedule which puts the allies under pressure to provide noticeable success within the next 18 months.

Nevertheless, there should be no illusion about the fact that the ISAF mission will still be continued for years, if not decades. Nobody can say today how long it will take to establish an Afghan National Army and local administrations capable of controlling the entire territory of the vast country. Furthermore, is cannot be said how much time is required to effectively fight the insurgents in Afghanistan and in the Afghan-Pakistan border region. As the Danish Minister of Defence, Søren Gade, told the Copenhagen Post, the withdrawal of troops cannot be realistically accomplished in all parts of the country in accordance to the narrow US timeframe: “It’s the most difficult area of the country we’re in and that will be the last place Afghan forces will come. One can start a troop withdrawal much faster in other parts of the country. It’s just the reality,’ Gade said.

However, Obama provided the signal, which many European governments that are under serious public pressure to pull-out as soon as possible have been waiting for: an end of the operation in Afghanistan is in sight or, at least, will be enforced by military and political resoluteness. The 30,000 additional troops, bringing the total number of troops to nearly 100,000 soldiers, “will increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight,” Obama said at the US Military Academy. “And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.”

The envisioned result of an independently capable Afghan government and force is based on three key strategic pillars: A military counterinsurgency effort aimed at protecting the Afghan people, a civilian surge that reinforces positive actions, and an effective partnership with Pakistan. Now that Obama presented his intentions for the future steps in Afghanistan, the US is looking at its ISAF partners and, in particular, towards Pakistan. The Afghan neighbour is still entangled in a military effort to fight insurgents on its own territory and has already expressed concerns that a US surge in Afghanistan might destabilise Pakistan as increasing numbers of insurgents from Afghanistan might seek refuge in the remote border areas. Since the latest offensives of the allies in the South and West of the Afghanistan and the opening of new allied supply routes in the North, originally rather calm areas such as Kunduz have seen an increase of insurgent activities.

Most commanders have called on their nations to send more troops and equipment in order to stem the changing challenges and the growing instability. In particular US Army General and ISAF Commander Stanley McChrystal’s request to deploy 40,000 additional troops earlier this year and his respective strategy suggestions have created quite a stir in Washington and have led to the present reassessment and Obama’s decision to increase the US effort in Afghanistan.

Although, so far, not all major contributors to the ISAF operation have announced to increase their deployed troops, the US can already count on significant support by some of its allies: NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had already predicted in mid-November that the number of NATO troops in Afghanistan will be significantly increased and, yesterday, urged the NATO allies to boost their contributions. Some hours after Obama’s speech, Rasmussen said he expects the allies deploy some 5,000 additional soldiers. On Monday Gordon Brown announced that the United Kingdom will send additional 500 soldiers to Afghanistan, taking the number of British troops in Afghanistan to 9,500 (see Furthermore, Poland could send up to 1,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to boost its 2,000-strong military contingent in the country, the Polish Foreign Ministry confirmed this week (see The ISAF operation also received support from 173 Georgian soldiers which have been trained by US forces during the past months (see And, despite the still insufficient number of Afghan soldiers and police fortes, the effort to enhance the capability of the presently available forces is being supported by the recently established NATO training mission at Camp Eggers in Kabul that will merge with the US-led Combined Security Transition Command (CSTC-A) (see

As the Times of India reported on Dec. 2, 2009, the Afghan government welcomes Obama’s decision to deploy more troops and hopes that this surge will crush the insurgents. However, the Afghan government should also be aware that this decision, including the timetable, will augment the pressure on the Karzai administration and is accompanied by the United States’ strong demand for more responsibility taken by the Afghan government and security forces. This does not only regard a stable security situation but also results in the often criticised efforts to fight corruption on all administrative levels. The US decision and the associated expectations entail tough challenges for the Afghan government.

Obama’s position is unambiguous. “I make this decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he explained. “This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al-Qaida. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.” Therefore, although being confronted with criticism from within the US and even from within the ranks of the Democratic party, the read thread for this operation is now clearer than it has been during the past eight years. Expressing his dissent with the decision, Democratic Senator from New Jersey, Robert Menendez, yesterday said: "My preference has been toward a targeted military operation that emphasizes counter-terrorism and focuses on routing al-Qaeda, rather than engaging in other flare-ups around Afghanistan. This strategy goes hand-in-hand with what I have insisted upon in our Pakistan policy, which is more pressure on the Pakistanis to go after the terrorists on their side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border."

Nevertheless, the majority of the voices heard since Obama made his West Point speech were positive. In particular, the military leadership in the US as well as in NATO member countries will be relieved at the thought that “after years of the previous administration's neglect, the Obama Administration has finally given this mission the attention and resources it demands,” as stated the US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. General McChrystal and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, also expressed their “full and unhesitating” (Mullen) support of Obama’s decision. In an interview Mullen said: “It has allowed us to explore the breadth and depth of this enormously complex challenge.” Summing it all up, McChrystal said in a published statement: "The Afghanistan-Pakistan review led by the president has provided me with a clear military mission and the resources to accomplish our task. The clarity, commitment and resolve outlined in the president's address are critical steps toward bringing security to Afghanistan and eliminating terrorist safe havens that threaten regional and global security.”

By Nicolas von Kospoth, Managing Editor
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