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America’s 2009 world: change and continuity

Tuesday 30 December 2008, by Paul Rogers

The United States’s security policy under Barack Obama may be less of a departure from that of his predecessor than many hope.

The Barack Obama administration which will take effect after the new United States president’s inauguration on 20 January 2009 looks likely to be very different to George W Bush’s in two major areas: economic policy and the environment. In its response to a great economic crisis, much of the programmes of public spending will be geared to infrastructural renovation, while the bailout of industries in trouble will be rigorous and demanding. In the area of environmental policy, the appointment of a notably science-literate team suggests a radical change of direction on climate change; this could include large-scale investment in renewable-energy projects underpinned by a clear recognition that this is one of the defining global issues of the 21st century.

In the area of national and international security, however, the Obama team as yet shows far fewer signs of innovative thinking. The actual formulation of policy may still be some way off, but the continuity both of rhetoric and of some personnel (such as the defence secretary, Robert M Gates) may be a foretaste of what is to come. Even on Iraq, there are indications that the process of withdrawal of American forces may not be speeded up, as was expected in the event of an Obama presidency; rather, the tasks of the substantial numbers of troops remaining may be redefined (see Elisabeth Bumiller, “Redefining the Role of the U.S Military in Iraq”, New York Times, 22 December 2008).

The stated aim may still be to withdraw all United States combat-troops from Iraqi cities by the middle of 2009, but that leaves room for a change of designation of many to “trainers” and “advisers”. In the same way, the formal commitment is to withdraw all US troops from Iraq by 2011, but this is already slipping; senior Iraqi security sources argue that their own army will not be ready by that time and there will be a need for US military support for another decade (see Robert Reed, “US troops to stay in Iraqi cities after June”, Associated Press, 13 December 2008).

An Afghan pledge

All this suggests that two major military programmes are likely to be followed through with very little change; and that they will help define the security policies of Barack Obama’s first term.

The first of these concerns President Bush’s plan to expand the US army by 74,200 troops. This is accompanied by a growth in the US marine corps; together these measures will lead to an overall increase in US ground forces of around 90,000 (almost as many as are in the entire British army). The cost of the proposed increase in the five years to 2013 is estimated at $80 billion, with a subsequent yearly additional cost of around $30 billion (see John T Bennet, “$40B Price Tag for Larger Army”, Defense News, 15 December 2008).

These plans have been approved by Congress, though the severe economic downturn might have been expected to offer the incoming Obama administration an opportunity to postpone or modify the proposal. This looks highly unlikely, especially in light of the second programme – a substantial growth in US forces in Afghanistan.

There have already been many reports of planned increases over and above the 2,800-strong combat-aviation brigade being deployed there in January 2009, and an additional brigade intended to join the 31,000-strong US force in the summer. It is now clear that an altogether larger reinforcement is being scheduled: possibly as many as 30,000 more troops in five combat-brigades, all to be sent to Afghanistan during 2009.

This would give a total combat strength in the country of about 75,000, overwhelmingly American (when combined with some Nato forces that are primarily engaged in counterinsurgency operations). At least another 15,000 Nato troops would be engaged in low-profile roles in Afghanistan’s north and west. This will mean that the level of foreign intervention - close to 100,000 foreign troops - will by the end of 2009 be starting to get close to that of Iraq.

Barack Obama has been consistent in saying that he would concentrate on the war in Afghanistan. His determination may have been reinforced by the serious problems that foreign troops are having in securing their supply-lines (see “Afghanistan: on the cliff-edge”, 28 August 2008). The attacks on the long route from Karachi through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Kabul, Bagram and Kandahar have become more frequent and serious since mid-2008, and there are few alternative routes given the huge quantities of supplies needed to keep the forces operational (see Anna Mulrine, “U.S. Military Eyes Alarming Spike in Attacks on Key Supply Convoys Into Afghanistan”, U.S. News & World Report, 22 December 2008)

Any channels that might involve China, Russia or Iran are politically difficult (see MK Bhradakumar, “All roads lead out of Afghanistan”, Asia Times, 19 December 2008); while attempts to open up a new route eastwards from the Black Sea through Georgia could cause major problems, as Russia would see its sphere of influence in the Caucasus constrained.

This reinforces the calculation that more troops in Afghanistan will make it easier to guard supply-lines, while at the same time allowing more forces to be available in an effort to curb the extension of Taliban influence.

An African dilemma

There is a widespread view in Washington that negotiations with influential elements of the Taliban may well be necessary but will only succeed from a position of military superiority. It is an attitude that has two basic flaws. The first is that the evidence so far indicates that the more American and European forces are put into Afghanistan, the more there is a stronger reaction against what is seen as a foreign occupation (see “Iraq’s gift to Afghanistan”, 20 November 2008). The second is that increased forces just means that the extensive safe havens in Pakistan become more significant, increasing the pressure to intervene on that side of the border, no matter what the risk to Pakistan’s internal stability.

All this is very much a case of “old thinking”, where the emphasis is on seeing military force as the primary response to security problems. It may come to a head in a potential crisis far away from Afghanistan, with Hillary Clinton at the state department and Robert M Gates at the Pentagon having to face an issue with its roots in Bill Clinton’s early years.

This is Somalia, where the Ethiopians have announced the withdrawal of their forces by the end of the year (see “Somali president fears militia rule”, AlJazeera, 21 December 2008). These forces have been propping up the weak transitional government of Abdullahi Yusuf, making it highly likely that the powerful al-Shabab Islamist militia will gain control of Mogadishu. It already holds power in much of southern Somalia and taking over Mogadishu will be a major step to control of the country (see Georg-Sebastian Holzer, “Somalia: ends and beginnings”, 18 December 2008).

In broad terms, al-Shabab is more radical than the Islamic Courts movement that brought some brief stability to Somalia in 2006. That movement was unacceptable to Washington, so al-Shabab will be viewed with even more antagonism, especially as there are indications that foreign paramilitaries have joined the fighting.

How the Obama administration responds to an al-Shabab takeover may indicate its more general approach to security in the arc of tensions from Somalia right through to Pakistan. The early indications are that it will be far closer to the Bush administration than many of its supporters had hoped. The Obama administration may well be adventurous and radical in matters economic and environmental, but its weakness could turn out to be that same attitude to international security that left its predecessor so castigated.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracysince 26 September 2001.

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