Saturday, January 31, 2009

Obama seems unlikely to widen war in Afghanistan

This is one of the few pieces I've seen that note the impact of the economic recession on what the US can accomplish in Afghanistan.

Obama seems unlikely to widen war in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama, who pledged during his campaign to shift U.S. troops and resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, has done little since taking office to suggest he will significantly widen the grinding war against a resurgent Taliban.

On the contrary, Obama appears likely to streamline the U.S. focus with an eye to the worsening economy and the cautionary example of the Iraq war that sapped political support for President George W. Bush.

"There's not simply a military solution to that problem," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last week, adding that Obama believes "that only through long-term and sustainable development can we ever hope to turn around what's going on there."

Less than two weeks into the new administration, Obama has not said much in public about what his top military adviser says is the largest challenge facing the armed forces. The president did say Afghanistan and Pakistan are the central front in the struggle against terrorism, a clue to the likely shift toward a targeted counterterrorism strategy.

After Obama's first visit to the Pentagon as president, a senior defense official said the commander in chief surveyed top uniformed officers about the strain of fighting two wars and warned that the economic crisis will limit U.S. responses. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama's meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff was private.

Obama said he wants to add troops to turn back the Taliban, but he has not gone beyond the approximately 30,000 additional forces already under consideration by the previous administration. Those troops will nearly double the U.S. presence in Afghanistan this year. But they amount to a finger in the dike while Obama recalibrates a chaotic mishmash of military and development objectives.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week warned of grandiose goals in Afghanistan, prescribing a single-minded strategy to prevent Afghanistan from being a terrorism launching pad.

"Afghanistan is the fourth or fifth poorest country in the world, and if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose," Gates said, referring to a haven of purity in Norse mythology. "Nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience or money, to be honest."

Obama has ordered a fast internal review of his military, diplomatic and other options in Afghanistan before he makes decisions that define how aggressively he will answer the growing threat of failure in Afghanistan.

Along with that review, coordinated by the National Security Council, Obama will have results of a just-completed classified Joint Chiefs of Staff assessment of a largely stalemated fight against the Taliban and counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaida and affiliated groups along the Pakistan border.

That report, which has not yet gone to the White House, talks broadly about lowering expectations in the Afghan war.

Instead, it suggests that key goals should be to make modest gains to stabilize the governance and to eliminate terrorist safe havens, senior defense officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the report is secret.

It also calls for military commanders to better articulate what their objectives in Afghanistan are because only then can leaders determine what types of troops should be deployed and how many.

The Joint Chiefs review also stresses that the strategy must be driven by what the Afghans want and that the U.S. cannot impose its own goals on the Afghan government.

Also ahead is Army Gen. David Petraeus' wider survey of both the Afghan and Iraq wars and other issues in the Middle East. Petraeus, military architect of the troop increase of U.S. troops in Iraq, is not likely to recommend a similar one in Afghanistan.

Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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