Obama's barmy army

On 30 August, the top US military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, submitted a 66-page assessment of the war to the White House. Without additional troops, he noted, the Afghan conflict would “likely result in failure." On 1 December, in his speech to the US Military Academy at West Point, President Obama announced 30,000 extra troops would be sent to Afghanistan in the first half of 2010.

In the three months between the initial request and the final decision, 116 US troops were killed in combat. In October alone, there were 58 US casualties in Afghanistan, making it the deadliest month of the eight-year-long conflict. For the British armed forces, 2009 has been the bloodiest year since the Falklands War in 1982. On 30 November, the day Gordon Brown announced his own plan to send 500 extra troops to Helmand Province, Acting Sergeant John Paxton Amer, of 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, became the 99th British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan this year.

As the death tolls continue to mount, it is no wonder that public support for the war has cooled on both sides of the Atlantic. So, is Obama's announcement the beginning of the end? "After 18 months," said the president, "our troops will begin to come home." This, however, is not an exit strategy. Obama failed to spell out the necessary criteria for any such drawdown in troop numbers. Nor is it credible to suggest, as he did, that Afghan security forces "will ultimately be responsible for their own country". Was he referring to the under-equipped Afghan National Army, blighted by desertion and drug addiction? Or the under-paid National Police, prone to corruption and Taliban infiltration?

Meanwhile, ordinary Afghans remain opposed to this troop "surge". In a nationwide poll commissioned by the BBC earlier this year, 73 per cent of Afghans said the number of US-led forces in the country should either be decreased (44 per cent) or "kept at the current level" (29 per cent). Only 18 per cent favoured an increase. If we are fighting a war on behalf of Afghans, it might be worth heeding their opinion.