Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, has now become Washington’s top foreign policy priority.
On the ground, foreign troops are tackling an increasingly fierce Taliban insurgency. And this, more than seven years after a US-led military campaign ousted the fundamentalists from power. Hence Barack Obama’s decision to send in an extra 17,000 US troops, increasing the US force size to 55,000 by the summer. The other main contributors to NATO’s operation are Britain, Germany, France, Canada and Italy. Most of the American reinforcements will be sent to southern Afghanistan where foreign forces have not had enough soldiers to keep effective control of ground they have captured from Taliban militants. Despite the troop boost, the top US commander in the country is warning of a long struggle ahead. “Even with these additional forces, I have to tell you that 2009 is going to be a tough year,” General David McKiernan told reporters. “We face a very resilient insurgency. It is a mixture of several different groups, sometimes facilitated by organisations like al Qaeda. They have increasingly conducted smaller-scale, complex, asymmetric attacks against softer targets, against government targets, against convoys, against police.” Civilian casualties incurred in the hunt for Taliban fighters have contributed to Afghan public hostility to foreign forces and reduced support for Hamid Karzai’s government. Very much Afghanistan’s public face, the President is supposed to step down in May when his five year term in office ends. But elections have been delayed until August 20, amid security and other concerns – raising fears of a possible power vacuum. As for President Obama, he has stressed that his strategy is “global” – based not only on fighting the Taliban but also on developing a country that remains one of the poorest in the world.