President Barack Obama’s decision to send an extra 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan is in many ways a teaser. His generals wanted a further 30,000 troops, which would have almost doubled the number of American forces already there.
Obama is waiting. He is waiting first for a review of the whole situation in Afghanistan by General David Petraeus, credited with the “surge” in Iraq which brought relative – emphasise relative – stability to that country and a man by whom so many set so much store.
Petraeus has made it abundantly clear that in his view military reinforcements may help in the short term as a temporary sticking plaster, but much more emphasis – and money – must now be devoted to good governance, fighting corruption and the heroin industry, civil society, building up the Afghan military and police forces, and offering the prospect of talks and reconciliation with the Taliban, which is to say the Afghan Taliban, not the new hardline Taliban groups now emerging across the border in north-west Pakistan.
In Washington, and in Nato, this is called the “comprehensive” approach. It has been a long time coming. Some commentators say it is too late. Not Obama, nor the British government.
Both are now waiting to see how other European allies will respond, in terms of troops, equipment such as helicopters, and money. Italy and Germany have indicated they will deploy more forces to southern Afghanistan. Britain, too, is likely to deploy more to join the 8,000 already there when it pulls out most of its 4,000 troops in Basra this summer.
The immediate trouble is that there are simply not enough troops to hold ground taken by troops in any particular operation. Commanders say it is like squashing a balloon. Obama wants decisions in time for Nato’s 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg in early April. The next important date is August, when presidential elections in Afghanistan are scheduled.