| Ander Nieuws week 34 / Midden-Oosten 2010 |
Obama's troop-withdrawal plans could suddenly turn into a mirage

The Wall Street journal
August 18, 2010
Iain Martin
The clock is ticking on the end of U.S. combat missions in Iraq. But with a fortnight to go until that deadline, violence is escalating again. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber killed at least 46 Iraqis, and injured more than 60, in a queue outside a recruiting center for the Iraqi army. Al Qaeda, or groups inspired by its leader Osama bin Laden, are being blamed.
The rise in the number of bombings and murders by extremists in Iraq in recent months hasn't attracted quite as much attention as it should have. It cuts across what has been for some time a widely accepted version of events that runs as follows: The famous "surge" of U.S. troops cleared the way for huge improvements in the situation on the ground (which it did). Responsibility is now being handed over to the Iraqi army and security services. While that hand-over will not be without its difficulties, the direction of travel is the right one.
According to this dominant analysis, what Barack Obama promised when he won the presidency - a steady disengagement from George W. Bush's war in Iraq - is being delivered, albeit with a few problems along the way. A conflict that has been broiling for seven years - longer than the entire span of World War II - is finally cooling down.
Instead, much of the focus is on Afghanistan. American withdrawals will supposedly begin there next year once the Afghan surge, involving an increase in troop numbers and operations, reaches its high-water mark.
In Britain, the preoccupation is also departure from Afghanistan - with Iraq an increasingly distant memory, except for those who lost loved ones in the conflict or were injured fighting in a war their fellow countrymen would seemingly much rather forget.
By the time of the next U.S. presidential election in 2012, combat operations in Iraq will be long ended and the drift to the exits in Afghanistan should be well under way. That's the theory anyway.
It is becoming apparent that there are several problems with all of this. First, the political reality appears increasingly at odds with the military reality. In Iraq, the most senior Iraqi general, Lieutenant. Gen. Babakir Zebari, caused a minor sensation recently when he said that Iraqi forces would be unable to cope without American help until 2020. He noted that the American withdrawal of combat troops was going well "because they are still here."
As many as 50,000 troops will stay on to help with training and logistics, although they will be combat ready and capable of intervening in an emergency. But a full drawdown of troops is then scheduled for next year. Gen. Zebari, who seems to have a gift for straight-talking, put it well: "The problem will start after 2011 - the politicians must find other ways to fill the void after 2011."
Also indulging in some straight talking in recent days has been Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He has indicated that he will not be held to President Obama's commitment to start shipping out U.S. troops in July 2011. Against a backdrop of rising U.S. casualty numbers, he wants more time to gain the trust of local populations and apply pressure to the extremists.
From Washington emerge various statements by the administration, designed to suggest that all of this is entirely consistent. Iraq is on track and in Afghanistan Gen. Petraeus is not diverging from his commander-in-chief's line.
These contradictions risk sending conflicting signals to allies. And the West's enemies will have noticed, too.
As the recent bombings in Iraq suggest, al Qaeda and its allies love a vacuum. Extremists engaged in global jihad are unlikely to abide by any timetable announced by a U.S. president keen to get out of two wars. They are determined to exploit it all they can.
At this highly dangerous point, the weather has intervened and Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan - deeply troubled country and security headache before the floods - is becoming even more of a problem.
Millions are suffering in the northwest of the country where al Qaeda and related groups are based. The international aid response, with a few countries providing the exception, has been woeful. Extremists thrive where conditions of poverty combine with the failure of central government institutions and international neglect.
Swift action, ideally U.S.-led to support the relief effort, looks sensible. If Pakistan becomes even less stable, the implications are hardly positive for Afghanistan.
It illustrates that anyone can design a timetable, but when it comes to war or defeating terrorists it can easily be rendered irrelevant by events.
Of course one can understand, with U.S. domestic opinion in the condition it is and most of Europe looking the other way, why President Obama wants to stay the course with his policy.
But the big potential difficulty here is that a clear impression is being created by the president, of problems on their way to being solved. Instead, that clear impression could easily turn out to have been a mirage.
Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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| Ander Nieuws week 34 / Midden-Oosten 2010 |