Obama outlines eighteen-month, 30000 troop surge in Afghanistan

Obama announces 30,000 troop build-up in Afghanistan. Sri Lanka must help refugees leaving camps, say UN and rights groups. Chechen rebels claim responsibility for Russian train bomb. Iran releases five British sailors. Bhopal water sill toxic 25 years after deadly gas leak. Suicide bomber hits Islamabad navy HQ. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Rukeyya Khan
2 December 2009

Following consultation with his security team and weeks of anticipation, US President Barack Obama yesterday committed an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan while setting a goal of starting to bring American forces home by July 2011. The surge comes after the bloodiest summer for both British and American soldiers amid declining public support on both sides of the Atlantic. In a televised speech from the US Military Academy, Obama said the goal of raising US troop levels to nearly 100,000 was to step up the battle against the Taliban and to train Afghan forces so they can take over. July 2011 will be the start of the transition process though conditions on the ground are likely to dictate the pace of US withdrawal.

The timeline on America's military involvement in Afghanistan is the first of its kind since the country was invaded in October 2001. The additional 30,000 troops will begin deploying early next year at ‘the fastest pace possible’ in a region described as the ‘epicentre’ of violent extremism practiced by al-Qaeda. Within hours of the announcement, General Stanley McChrystal promised a dramatic change in strategy, faster training of Afghan troops and a renewed emphasis on winning public support for the Afghan government, adding that the escalation is ‘going to make a huge difference.’

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama's national security team heads to Congress to sell his escalation to the legislature. The Senate Armed Services Committee will kick proceedings off with testimony on Wednesday morning from Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen.

In a statement emailed to the media on Wednesday, the Afghan Taliban responded to the announcement of a surge in US troops in Afghanistan by saying the strategy will not work and would only strengthen their resolve.

The openSecurity verdict: Whether Obama's popularity in Europe will return dividends in the form of NATO troops will be a crucial testing point in the American-led surge strategy. On Wednesday, European leaders were quick to offer verbal support for the Obama administration’s Afghan strategy, but in less of a hurry to commit new troops to a deadly military campaign. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that U.S. allies will send an additional 5,000 troops to Afghanistan, though it is unknown how many NATO countries will assist the surge. So far, Britain has committed an additional 500 combat troops, while Spain is reportedly considering sending an additional 200 and Poland 600. France, Germany and Italy, the most significant military powers in continental Europe, all welcomed Obama’s speech, but are yet to announce troop increases. NATO's Afghan mission is expected to top the agenda ahead of talks in Brussels on Thursday.

The surge’s success, however, rests not merely on Europe’s willingness to pledge additional troops but on its use of troops deployed. Bribery and tacit truces are becoming a major concern of more combative US commanders. The Taliban have claimed that they have been offered gifts and money by French soldiers in order to persuade the fighters not to engage French forces. The French military has strongly denied the reports of bribery. The claim however comes only a month after Italian troops in the same area were accused of paying off Taliban fighters to keep the area calm. Such allegations suggest EU nations are heeding the surge to please the American regime rather than in response to a genuine conviction that it will defeat the Taliban.

Engagement with the enemy raises further concerns. Kai Eide, the top UN official in Afghanistan has already warned against alienating the civilian population by carrying out clumsy and aggressive raids and searches. The warning came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed regret for an air strike in Afghanistan which killed civilians three months ago, as calls intensified for a probe into what members of her government knew about the attack.

In the US, Obama's surge has won support among both Democrats and Republicans. However, the biggest concern facing Congress is how to pay for the war effort. The surge will cost an estimated $30bn on top of the $3.6bn a month already being spent on the war. Liberal congress Democrats, who largely oppose the war, argue that the new troop deployment will marginalise funding for domestic priorities. Led by House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), they have vowed to force a new ‘war tax’ to finance Obama's strategy, which will likely provoke a confrontation with other Democrats.

The feasibility of the plan for withdrawal poses as many dilemmas as deployment. Critics are arguing that the transition of responsibilities should be based on conditions, not timelines, to ensure that lasting results are produced in security, governance and the capabilities of the Afghan security forces, upon whom the success of the US exist strategy will depend. The reported strength of the Afghan army stands at over 90,000 and the police at 93,000. But these numbers have been found to be greatly exaggerated since widespread desertions are common among members of the army and police. Nation building efforts in Afghanistan are being met with scepticism, particularly as the central government in Kabul remains relatively weak and serious corruption persists. So far, only one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces is under entirely Afghan military and police control.

Very little has been said on the issue of human rights, the plight of a people affected by decades of war, or the fate of Afghan women. For sceptics, the war is beginning to feel like a luxury that ought not to supersede economic recovery efforts in the US. A September Gallup poll found that jobs and the economy are the most important issues facing Americans. Iraq ranked sixth whilst Afghanistan did not even make the list. More recently, Americans have been found to be far less approving of Obama's handling of the situation in Afghanistan with 35% currently approving, down from 49% in September and 56% in July.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Council on Foreign Relations – results of which are set to be released on Thursday – has found that isolationist sentiment in the US is at its highest level since 1964. The poll has found a record number of Americans think the US should go its own way and not worry about other countries.

The Afghan people too, it seems, are unimpressed with greater military involvement in their country. When asked about the escalation on Wednesday morning, Esmatullah, a young construction worker on a Kabul street corner said: ‘Even if they bring the whole of America, they won't be able to stabilize Afghanistan. Only Afghans understand our traditions, geography and way of life.’

Sri Lanka must help refugees leaving camps: UN

The United Nations and human rights groups have said that Sri Lanka must provide Tamil war refugees assistance after they were allowed to leave refugee camps where they have been detained for months. The Sri Lankan government yesterday ended restrictions on people leaving camps in the north that hold around 120,000 civilians but the bar on international monitoring of camps and the refugees' movements remains in place. Officials said the civilians were able to leave the overcrowded camps for up to ten days, although they would have to register with the authorities wherever they went.

The civilians are believed to be from the worst-affected areas of the country, where their homes have been destroyed, abandoned or infested with mines. On Wednesday, Amnesty International urged the Sri Lankan government to grant full freedom to the civilians and maintain its responsibility to care for displaced people, wherever they chose to go. Up to 300,000 Tamil refugees were forced into camps in the aftermath of civil war in the country which saw the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) defeated. Under international pressure, the government has pledged that the majority of the civilians will be returned to their homes by the end of the year.

Chechen rebels claim responsibility for Russian train bomb

A North Caucasus Islamist group has claimed responsibility for a bomb that killed 26 people on board a Moscow-to-St Petersburg train. In a statement posted online, the group claims that last Friday's attack was carried out by the ‘Caucasian Mujahideen.’ The statement said the luxury Nevsky Express train was ‘mainly used by Russia's leading officials.’ Though it is not possible to verify the claim's authenticity, Moscow has already described the attack as an act of terrorism. Russian officials have released a photo-fit of a man believed to be linked to the bombing.

Violence between rebels and local authorities in the North Caucasus region is continuing following two brutal wars in Chechnya. Earlier this week, three suspected rebels were killed and six police officers wounded in clashed in Chechnya and Dagestan.

Iran releases five British sailors

Iran has released five British sailors detained in the Gulf after their yacht reportedly strayed into Iranian waters while travelling from Bahrain to Dubai for the 360-mile Dubai-Muscat Offshore Sailing Race. Yesterday Iran had warned that the sailors would be prosecuted if it was proven that they had 'bad intentions.' On Wednesday, the official IRNA news agency said the yachtsmen were released after it was found that it was an innocent case of a vessel accidentally going astray. Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he was 'delighted' by the news, adding that it was a successful example of diplomacy between Britain and Iran.

Bhopal water sill toxic 25 years after deadly gas leak

Two studies have found that groundwater near the site of the world's worst chemical industrial accident in Bhopal, India is still toxic and poisoning locals a quarter of a century after a gas leak there killed thousands. Delhi's Centre for Science and the Environment found that water within a two mile radius from the factory contained pesticides 40 times higher than the Indian safety standard. A second study by the UK-based Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA) found a chemical cocktail in local drinking water - with one carcinogen present at 2,400 times the World Health Organisation's guidelines.

The Indian government has come under sharp criticism for passing the disused factory off as a tourist spot. Campaigners claim the site contains about 8,000 tonnes of carcinogenic chemicals that continue to leak out and contaminate water supplies. The company responsible for the factory, Union Carbide, says it no longer bears the responsibility for cleaning up the mess and pointed out it has already made a settlement of $470m (£284m).

Suicide bomber hits Islamabad navy HQ

A suicide bomber has blown himself up at the entrance of Pakistan's navy headquarters in Islamabad, killing a security officer and wounding four others. The attacker detonated his explosives when stopped at the entrance of the heavily fortified compound at around 1.30pm (0830GMT) on Wednesday. The attack comes a day after a suicide bomber killed a provincial MP as he received guests at his home in Pakistan's northwest Swat Valley. Pakistan continues its offensive against the insurgency in the North West Frontier Province, with South Waziristan in FATA witnessing the latest advance of Pakistani forces.

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