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Obama Backpedals On Afghan Troop Surge

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We may soon witness a reverse triple back flip with pike by the Obama administration over his campaign promise of increasing troop numbers in Afghanistan.

Despite Obama's pledge to undertake an initial surge of a further 17,000 troops (and a possible 17,000 more late in 2009) into the war-turned-quagmire, the increase has little domestic support inside the US. Importantly and tellingly, a troop increase is also being questioned at the highest levels of the administration.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has cited a need for "reassessment" as the reason for the delay in deployment, and this is not a lily-livered cop out. Reassessment is much needed, as a chorus of military strategists and analysts are questioning whether a surge will work in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq.

With a raft of strategy reviews, new advisors and a driven, head strong and brilliant Special Envoy in Richard Holbrooke, it looks like there are going to be many cooks in this messy kitchen.

Also in the mix are formal recommendations from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House National Security Council and General David Petraeus of Central Command.

The new orthodoxy seems to be giving up on the notion of democracy-by-force (always a recipe for disaster) and aiming instead for regional security in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The important NATO summit which starts on April 3 will be President Obama's first major world stage event; it's the natural deadline for US policy to have been thrashed out, negotiated behind closed doors, committed to, unveiled (and no doubt derided).

"We need more than a military solution," national security adviser, retired General James L. Jones said in Europe last week.

For starters, a national government that has the confidence of the Afghan people is essential.

That government does not necessarily have to be democratic. It is time for the West to lay our values aside and let the political marketplace of Afghanistan decide on the form of government that will work for it. This does not mean standing back and allowing wholesale slaughter, human rights abuses or a return of the appalling treatment of women and girls, but it does mean ditching Bush's high reaching, self-defeating Utopian delusions.

"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," Secretary Gates has said. "Nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience or money, to be honest."

Afghanistan must have a working, intelligent army, which can think and act strategically. It also needs a professional, trustworthy police force that will uphold the rule of law.

In the past year, allied soldiers have been dying in record numbers, regional and strategic alliances (most notably with European allies) have become strained. Thousands of Afghan citizens have been killed. Taliban attacks are up, anxiety and lack of confidence are at record highs and the view of Hamid Karzai inside Afghanistan makes George Bush look like he was positively Mr. Popularity in US in the dying days of his presidency.

President Obama has started to talk down previous big goals in Afghanistan.

"We are not going to be able to rebuild Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy," he said last week. "What we can do is make sure that Afghanistan is not a safe haven for al-Qaeda. What we can do is make sure that it is not destabilizing neighbouring Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons," he said.

To define a goal as something that a country is not, may sound like a defeated and defeatist target. But make no mistake; those objectives are tough, tough goals. The decisions made in the next few months are critical for the way forward, because right now it's drowning time in Afghanistan.

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