On Monday night, Barack Obama held his ninth and possibly last “war council”, discussing strategy changes in the Afghan war and a US troop increase with his top advisors. Obama is coming close to a decision on a “surge” of up to 40,000 additional soldiers to Afghanistan, in a bid to stabilize the country and regain initiative from the Taliban.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the two-hour meeting, with officials such as Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, was aimed at discussing “some of the questions that the president had, some additional answers to what he'd asked for".
"After completing a rigorous final meeting, President Obama has the information he wants and needs to make his decision and he will announce that decision within days," Gibbs stated.
At the previous strategy meeting on 11 November, Obama was dissatisfied with the options presented, and pushed for revisions and clarifications in proposed troop increase plans. According to sources at the White House, Obama will make a live broadcast announcement about his decision next Monday, before senior administration figures such as Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates testify in congress. The same sources stated that the troop increase will likely lay in a range of between 30,000 and 35,000 soldiers.
The openSecurity verdict: General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of American and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, has requested 40,000 additional troops to fight the Taliban. After the 2001 invasion, the number of NATO soldiers in Afghanistan gradually increased to the current level of 110,000, 70,000 of whom are Americans. However, an even bigger presence is needed to implement McChrystal’s development-orientated strategy of protecting civilians and buying time to build the Afghan state and expand the national army.
Critics of President Obama have reproached him for hesitating too long before making a decision. In a radio interview, former Vice-President Dick Cheney said that “the delay is not cost-free. Every day that goes by raises doubts in the minds of our friends in the region about what you're going to do, raises doubts in the minds of the troops." Supporters of the president counter that the White House is taking the time to reach an optimal, well-informed decision.
Western strategists are divided about the right course of action. Some stress the ‘domino-theory’, reasoning that a retreat from Afghanistan, and the implied defeat of America by the Taliban, would lead to a wave of Islamic fundamentalism in the surrounding region. Others have expressed concerns that the huge American presence in Afghanistan leads to resentment against the West and helps unite rival militant groups against a common ‘foreign invader’. Last week, a poll by The Washington Post and ABC News concluded that 46 percent of Americans were in favour of a large troop surge, while 45 percent were more inclined towards a smaller increase of forces, with more of a focus on training the Afghan army.
Building the Afghan national security forces will be a key component in stabilizing the country, and allowing foreign troops to withdraw in the long term. On 21 November, an integrated NATO unit took command of the training of the Afghan army and police. However, multiple difficulties exist, including tribal and religious rivalries that often eclipse Afghan national unity, widespread corruption, and a perception among common Afghans that joining the Taliban offers better rewards.
For the United States, the upcoming increase in troop numbers will also mean a heavy financial burden. White House Budget Director Peter Orszag estimates the cost to be around $1 million for each additional soldier, with a total of between $30-40 billion for the projected troop increase. Although Congress is likely to approve an Afghan ‘surge’, due to Democrat loyalty to the president and Republican support for the war effort, concern for the sky-rocketing government budget deficit is growing. Two Democrat Congress members have floated a “war tax” proposal to pay for the additional costs, calling for higher-income Americans to be taxed more heavily, to pay for sending the additional troops. However, the idea got a cold reception at the White House, rendering the success of a war tax improbable.
Israel, Hamas close to prisoner exchange deal
Expectations have been raised that Israel is close to a negotiated deal to free the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a swap for Palestinian prisoners. The arrival of Hamas leaders in Cairo on Monday was taken as a sign that a conclusion of the Egypt- and German-mediated talks is near. Both sides cautioned that the deal was not yet done, however conditions for a successful agreement seemed favourable.
Shalit was captured three years ago on the edge of the Gaza strip, during a Palestinian incursion via underground tunnels. Israelis have long clamoured for his release, but the release of hundreds of Palestinian militants remains a contested point. Exactly which persons will be released stays unclear, as both parties to the negotiations have not mentioned names in public. On Sunday, Israeli President Shimon Peres said, "there is no doubt that real progress has been made on the issue of Gilad Shalit", AFP reported.
The exchange would represent a major political success for Hamas, strengthening its position vis-à-vis the moderate, Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas.
Philippines declares state of emergency after political massacre
On Tuesday, the government of the Philippines called a state of emergency, sending extra security forces to the southern province where at least 46 people where killed in election-related murders the day before.
The victims, a group of politicians and journalists, were abducted and killed while travelling to file nomination papers for elections next year. The authorities announced the discovery of 21 corpses on Monday, but the next day the death toll rose to 46 after more fresh graves were discovered.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo called the state of emergency in the province of Maguindanao, aiming to prevent the escalation of the conflict between rival political clans. It will also give police and military officials additional powers to investigate the murders. The gruesome killings have put President Arroyo in an uncomfortable position, as one of her supporters, a local politician, has been implicated in the atrocities.
Second blast at Russian arms depot kills eight
At least eight soldiers were killed and two injured in an explosion at a navy weapons depot in central Russia, the Russian defence ministry confirmed. The soldiers were bomb experts, cleaning up after a huge series of blasts ten days ago at the same site.
The explosion occurred at Arsenal Number 31 in the city of Ulyanovsk, a medium-size city southeast of Moscow. The defence ministry stated that a shell “self-detonated” as ammunition was being loaded onto a truck.
Western military analysts often criticize the Russian military for its low safety standards, which, combined with ageing equipment and poor training, have lead to numerous accidents in recent years.
Four US soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan
On Monday, four American troops died fighting in Afghanistan, according to NATO. Three of the soldiers died in southern Afghanistan, two of them killed by a roadside bomb, the third in a firefight with insurgents and the fourth killed in a separate road side bomb in the east of the country. No further details were provided.
In a separate incident on Sunday, a roadside bomb killed three Afghan soldiers in Helmand province. It was not clear whether there was a connection between the American deaths and the Afghan casualties.