US ‘surge’ troops have left Afghanistan
The 33,000 additional US troops that president Barack Obama ordered to Afghanistan to stamp out Taleban attacks nearly two years ago have left the country, it has been announced.
US defence secretary Leon Panetta announced yesterday that the troops had gone out, declaring the surge had accomplished its objective.
However, the withdrawal came as a new wave of deadly insider attacks raised questions about how well the military strategy is working.
After a tumultuous week in Afghanistan that saw commanders put limits on when Nato and Afghan troops can patrol together, Mr Panetta acknowledged there will still be difficult days ahead.
“The surge did accomplish its objectives of reversing the Taleban momentum on the battlefield and dramatically increasing the size and capability of the Afghan national security forces,” he told reporters at a press conference at Government House in Auckland, where he was meeting New Zealand leaders.
Mr Panetta said the re-deployment of the 33,000 troops was a “very important milestone” and that the US is on track to accomplish its goals in Afghanistan. The withdrawal, which was completed on schedule, still leaves close to 100,000 Nato troops there, including 68,000 Americans.
Mr Panetta’s success mantra, however, is called into question by the decision earlier this week that, at least temporarily, Nato operations with small Afghan units are no longer routine, and will require the approval of the regional commander.
Until now, coalition troops routinely conducted operations such as patrolling or manning outposts with small units of their Afghan counterparts. However, a growing wave of so-called insider attacks in which Afghan army and police troops, or insurgents dressed in their uniforms, have been turning their guns on US and Nato forces, has shaken the trust between the allied troops and the Afghans they are there to train.
It has called into question the core strategy that relies on Nato troops working shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghans, training them to take over the security of their own country so the US and its allies can leave at the end of 2014 as planned.
As of this week, 51 coalition troops have been killed in such attacks this year.
Australian Brigadier General Roger Noble, deputy to the alliance’s operations chief, acknowledged earlier this week that the attacks are rattling the troops.
“It strikes right at the heart of our resolve,” he said. “It’s one thing to be killed in action by the insurgents. It’s quite another to be shot in the back of the head at night by your friends.”
Mr Panetta has rejected suggestions that the strategy is failing, saying “we have turned the corner” in Afghanistan.
The number of US forces in Afghanistan peaked at about 101,000 last year, and they have been going out slowly over the past several months. The surge was aimed at beating back the Taleban to give the Afghan government and its security forces the time and space to take hold.
The key goal was to ensure that the Taleban did not regain a foothold in the country that could allow it once again to become a safe haven for terror groups. There was hope that Taleban members would be willing to go to the peace table.
Military commanders say they have made broad gains against the Taleban, wresting control of areas where the insurgents once had strong footholds. Mr Panetta has characterised the insider attacks as the last gasp of a desperate insurgency.
However, other top military leaders, including US General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are worried about the impact of the attacks on the troops. Gen Dempsey called them a “very serious threat” to the war campaign and has declared that “something has to change”.
Earlier this week, British forces said they had responded “swiftly and decisively” to regain control of Camp Bastion after the Taleban raided the base last week. Fifteen insurgents breached the perimeter defences of the base, killing two US Marines.
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