Canadians unaccustomed to whistling "Hail to the Chief" should cheer Barack Obama's speech on Afghanistan. Mr. Obama's approach is a welcome intensification of efforts in the country, and is the best possible plan for a region that is beset with danger and presents political difficulties at home.
The Afghan surge corrects a long-standing failure of American policy. For six and a half years, the U.S. focus on Iraq drew resources away from the al-Qaeda threat in Afghanistan and helped create new terrorist cells where none existed before. The rebalancing will not be easy - there are still around 100,000 American soldiers in Iraq.
The internal obstacles to scaling up are many. Mr. Obama inherits a military, Democratic leadership and electorate weary of war, and of paying its price in blood and treasure. His decision to increase the number of soldiers in the Afghan theatre is an act of political risk and courage, given that every day that passes since Sept. 11, 2001 makes the world less attuned to the threat al-Qaeda represents. By setting July, 2011 as the time at which troop withdrawals will begin, Mr. Obama will dull his domestic critics, and will show the Afghan leadership that it is ultimately responsible for turning al-Qaeda back within its borders.
Recent challenges in Afghanistan do not make the political or military situation any easier. The population feels as insecure as in any time in the last eight years. An administration widely seen as illegitimate runs Kabul, and has had to strike deals with warlords to preserve some modicum of influence in other areas. NATO soldiers still outnumber Afghan National Army troops.
But Mr. Obama took his audience back to the Sept. 11 attacks, and connected it to the current situation, saying "new attacks are being plotted as I speak." Meanwhile, "the status quo is not sustainable." And so the plan is an activist one. A quicker ramp up in the most dangerous regions of Helmand and Kandahar, to be undertaken within six months, may mean more allied deaths in the near term, but it will help roll back a resurgent Taliban. A greater focus on training security forces is a needed investment if Afghans are to provide their own security.
The speech shows the depth of the American commitment. Although more soldiers are desirable, a larger deployment would likely have put an unacceptable strain on American military resources. As recently as 2007, Afghanistan was being patrolled by only around 40,000 NATO soldiers, only half of whom were American, despite the fact that this was a war most clearly in the American interest. All told, moves by Mr. Obama since he took office will have more than tripled the American military presence in Afghanistan. This is a welcome relief for Canadians, who serve bravely in the country's most dangerous regions.
The focus on al-Qaeda as it remains in Afghanistan and Pakistan - "the epicentre of the violent extremism," as Mr. Obama called it - must be paramount. The intellectual and organizational heart of terrorism targeted against the West is there, and of late, has attracted American adherents. "This is no idle danger, no hypothetical threat," said Mr. Obama. A necessary reminder that this remains a necessary war.Report Typo/Error
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