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The Toronto Star

Obama's Very Own Quagmire

Will Barack Obama provide a way out of Afghanistan? Perhaps. But I'm not optimistic. The new U.S. president talks about the importance of diplomacy and development. However, his actions so far have focused on extending the war.

Obama is continuing the policy, started by his predecessor George W. Bush, of bombing suspected Taliban hideouts in Pakistan. As well, the U.S. has sent about 70 military "advisers" into that country.

We shouldn't be surprised. When he was campaigning for the presidency, Obama promised to vigorously pursue the Taliban into their Pakistani sanctuaries. At the time, he was criticized as naive. The smart money said he'd never follow through. Apparently, the smart money was wrong.

In fact, Obama's Afghan strategy seems remarkably similar to that of Bush. Bush, too, embraced the so-called three D's, defence, development and diplomacy, all of which have been U.S. and NATO orthodoxy since 2003.

It's true that in the early years of the war Bush focused solely on force of arms. As then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously noted, America wasn't in the business of nation-building.

But by 2003, that began to change. As the Taliban regrouped, the U.S. realized that it was caught in a full-scale insurgency that required a more sophisticated response.

That in turn led to the development of so-called provincial reconstruction teams, military-led operations aimed at providing both security and development to Afghan villagers. It also led the U.S. to have NATO allies like Canada take on a larger role.

Ordinary NATO troops would provide on-the-ground security for Afghan villagers; commando units would locate suspected Taliban militants; air power would kill them.

That was Bush's strategy. And it was the strategy pursued by the man he chose to replace Rumsfeld, Robert Gates. Given that Obama has kept Gates on as defence secretary, this appears to be the new president's strategy as well.

The key difference is that Obama plans to operate on a larger scale. He is sending 17,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. He will almost certainly send more.

The problem with the Bush-Rumsfeld-Gates strategy was that it didn't work. Too often, the commandos shot up the wrong compounds. Too often, the airplanes bombed the wrong buildings.

The U.S. and NATO won all the military engagements and lost all the political ones.

On the ground, foreign troops had to spend too much time defending themselves from attack to encourage development.

Over the years, as casualties mounted, NATO countries like Canada switched from battling the Taliban to training Afghans to battle the Taliban.

That hasn't worked either. Obama now plans to arm tribal militias to do the job.

On the diplomatic front, American officials are finally talking to all neighbouring countries, including Iran. But there is no indication that the new administration wants to encourage serious talks with the Taliban. Indeed, Obama seems to be disowning Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has tried such negotiations.

Obama is to formally lay out his full Afghan strategy next month. But his actions to date give a good idea of what it will be: more money; more troops; a wider war.

Shades of Vietnam. Shades too of Lyndon Johnson, the U.S. president whose decision to send in the Marines turned that so-called brush-fire war into an all-out conflagration.

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Thomas Walkom

Thomas Walkom, Toronto Star national affairs columnist, writes on political economy.

The winner of two national newspaper awards (foreign reporting and column writing), he was the Star’s Queen’s Park columnist for eight years. Before that, he wrote for the Globe and Mail - first as an Ottawa parliamentary reporter, then as Tokyo bureau chief.

He has a PhD in economics from the University of Toronto and is author of Rae Days: the rise and follies of the NDP, a book on Ontario’s first New Democratic Party government, that managed to make the best sellers’ list for about five minutes.


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