President-elect Barack Obama has said that very soon after his inauguration on Tuesday he will meet with top U.S. military leaders to discuss priorities. During the election campaign he said he would give the military a new mission in Iraq. But priorities have changed since then and now the meeting may focus more on Afghanistan, where Mr. Obama is expected to implement a troop increase that President Bush promised.
The president-elect had said he wanted most U.S. combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of his inauguration. But late last year, the Bush administration signed an agreement with Iraq that takes a different approach, requiring the removal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities by June, and the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the entire country by the end of 2011.
It is not clear exactly what orders Obama will give, but he has said he will listen to the concerns of top military officers before making any final decisions.
One of the main concerns he will hear relates to Afghanistan, where the U.S. commander has asked for 14,000 more combat troops and several thousand more support troops. The new president's appointee for Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy, was asked about that at her Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday. "I actually think the intent of both President-elect Obama and (Defense) Secretary (Robert) Gates is to move as quickly as possible. I have not yet been briefed on the details in terms of what would be required to do that. But I do believe that in principle we should be moving as quickly as possible," she said.
But Pentagon officials say moving quickly to add troops in Afghanistan means reducing troop numbers in Iraq. General David Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in Iraq who now has responsibility for the entire Middle East and Central Asia region, says he, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and the new U.S. Iraq commander, General Ray Odierno, believe the United States needs to be careful about removing troops from Iraq too quickly. "The ambassador and General Odierno and I have reminded everyone, it is our view that the progress does remain fragile. It does remain reversible," he said.
And some experts warn against adding too many foreign troops to Afghanistan. Among them is Zbigniew Brzezinski, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who was President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser in the 1970s when the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan. "This runs the risk of gradually turning the Afghan population against our efforts. The enterprise thus, paradoxically, is turning in the direction painfully reminiscent of what the Soviets experienced," he said.
Brzezinski says any troop increases should be relatively small, and focused on particular problem areas in Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents who support the country's former government have been particularly active in recent months.
Michele Flournoy says the Obama Administration will be careful in implementing the expected troop increase. "The key principle is to shift the emphasis, but to do so in a very responsible manner," she said.
Aside from troop numbers, civilian and military officials agree there needs to be a strong parallel effort to improve Afghanistan's economy and the quality of its government, and to end corruption and fight the narcotics trade. And many experts, including Zbigniew Brzezinski and General Petraeus have called for local political accommodation, perhaps even with reconcilable elements of the Taliban.
That kind of strategy worked in Iraq, where General Petraeus engineered a series of agreements with previously hostile tribal leaders. Petraeus is quick to point out that Iraq and Afghanistan are very different, but he also says many of the approaches he used successfully in Iraq will likely work in Afghanistan. Among them are the needs to establish better security, provide government services, put military and police posts out among the people and to get local residents involved in providing for their own security. "The lines of operation exist. The question is how to achieve greater unity of effort among all of the different partners in this effort, and with our Afghan partners as well," he said.
That concept of "unity of effort" is frequently mentioned but difficult to implement, particularly in Afghanistan, where more than 40 nations provide troops and assistance.
The White House and the Pentagon recently completed reviews of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, and delivered them to the Obama Transition Team. The top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, said in December he did not expect any major strategy change. "At this point, anyway, I don't expect any radical changes. I think emphasis is going to be important. Clearly, we'll see where we go with a new administration with respect to that, and clearly part of the discussion will be how the strategy gets resourced," he said.
Like other military officers and civilian officials, Admiral Mullen says the Afghanistan war will not be won by military power alone, adding that Afghanistan also needs a variety of civilian aid and advice. And the admiral also says the United States and NATO need a regional approach, taking into account the situation in Pakistan, where Afghan insurgents take refuge, and the role of other nearby countries, including Iran.
That kind of regional approach is what General Petraeus is working on in his own Afghanistan strategy review, and he has a 200-member team working on it. His report is expected in February.