During his first prime-time news conference, President Obama described "the most sobering moment" of his young presidency. It was when he sat down to sign letters to the families of fallen soldiers. "It reminds you of the responsibilities that you carry in this office," he said, "and the consequences of the decisions that you make."
This week, Obama unveiled his first major decision as commander in chief—one that carries with it the knowledge that he will have to send more such letters. Some 17,000 troops now have orders to deploy to Afghanistan in a few weeks, a move that will increase U.S. force strength there by about 50 percent by midsummer.
This falls short of the 30,000 troops requested by Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which would have doubled current U.S. force levels in the country. But this week's announcement may mark the first part of a larger wave of troops to come.
Officials say that they will make no further deployment decisions until the White House completes its Afghanistan strategy review, which they estimate will happen in late March. In the meantime, McKiernan noted this week that "even with these additional forces, I have to tell you that 2009 is going to be a tough year."
There is clear consensus about that around the halls of the Pentagon. Even as units rapidly prepare to depart, senior military officials are struggling to respond to a series of dangerous twists in the troubled region, some of which have led them to doubt whether troops will be able to blunt an increasingly brutal insurgency without a clearer sense of what, exactly, victory in Afghanistan resembles.
The U.S. strategy as it stands now is a losing one, some U.S. military officials say. Though most agree that more troops are necessary to halt advances by the Taliban and al Qaeda, the war itself won't be won, they add, without realistic, and clearly defined, short-term goals. "The goals we've had for Afghanistan are too broad and too far into the future," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged during a news conference earlier this month. That is, he added, a conclusion the Bush administration had reached as well.
Now that Obama has elevated the Afghan war to a leading position among his foreign policy priorities, the U.S. strategy there is under intense re-evaluation. What is clear, says Gates, is that there needs to be a three- to five-year plan for "re-establishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after al Qaeda, preventing the establishment of terrorism, better performance in terms of delivery of services to the people—some very concrete things."
This is a tall order, and by no means an all-encompassing one. A dismal report to Congress released by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction last month noted that even after spending $32 billion in American aid, efforts to rebuild the country "lack coherence." The Afghan government is corrupt and ineffectual, and drug production continues to skyrocket.
But chief among their concerns, senior Pentagon officials say, is the need for a more holistic approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where insurgents use ungoverned territories as bases to launch increasingly complex attacks on U.S. forces and their supply lines.
This point is at the heart of a recently completed review by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There is growing concern among top military officials that , while Predator drone strikes conducted by the CIA in Pakistan have killed some top insurgent leaders, they are also destabilizing the country, causing civilian casualties, and turning both Afghans and Pakistanis against America. One top U.S. military official recently expressed doubt that the war in Afghanistan could be won at all. It would be better, he said, to concentrate efforts on stabilizing a nuclear-armed Pakistan and keep a skeletal U.S. rapid reaction force in Afghanistan to tamp down problems as they arise.
Such comments are rare, but they offer a window into breadth of opinion on how best to handle Afghanistan, even within the U.S. military.
The region is critically complex, and it seems to get more complicated by the day. After a Kremlin promise of $2.1 billion in aid, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of Kirgizstan declared earlier this month that he would be shutting down Manas Air Base, a key U.S. logistics hub for Afghanistan. U.S. officials say that nothing is finalized. But the move signifies a disturbing reassertion of Russian power, they add, and one more problem on the new president's plate.
- Read more about Afghanistan.