TOPICS:Still deeper in Afghan mire

Confused, apparently contradictory statements by Barack Obama suggest the new president is having as much trouble as his hapless predecessor in defining US strategy in Afghanistan. Part of the difficulty confronting his policy reviewers is that each time they look, the problem just gets bigger.

Talking at the weekend, Obama sounded more like a college lecturer trying to cover all the bases than a commander-in-chief with a clear plan of action. “We may need to bring a more regional diplomatic approach to bear. We may need to co-ordinate more effectively with our allies. But we can’t lose sight of what our central mission is. The same mission we had when we went in after 9/11,” he said.

This same-as-before mission to battle al-Qaida and the Taliban presumably explains why Obama is deploying an additional 17,000 combat troops, raising total US and Nato ground forces to about 85,000 by mid-summer. But he went on to say it would not be business as usual.

“What we can’t do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is going to be able to solve our problems. So what we’re looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there’s gotta be an exit strategy ... there’s got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift.” That’s a lot to ask all in one go. While it was not immediately obvious how these various elements would fit together, the talk in Washington since Obama’s election has been of limiting US aims to anti-terror operations and establishing security and stability. In remarks similar to Obama’s, Senator John Kerry last month urged that the US revert to its “original mission” of counter-insurgency and adopt “realistic goals”.

Obama’s talk of an exit strategy will also raise questions in Afghan minds about US commitment post-Iraq. It could be seen as commendably prudent - or politically glib.

Similar confusion surrounds Obama’s plans, or perhaps merely floated ideas, to talk to “moderate” elements of the Taliban. His top commander, General David Petraeus, is also said to be interested in building tribal alliances similar to those forged with Sunni Arabs in central Iraq. The half-offer of negotiations sits ill with Washington’s military escalation in Helmand.

The administration’s deliberate undermining of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, when no obvious replacement is at hand, has been self-defeating. Karzai is still very much in post and preparing to fight an August election. The latest colonialist wheeze of installing a powerful “chief executive” figure in Kabul is almost certainly a non-starter.

Obama’s hopes of creating a collective regional and diplomatic approach grow more complicated by the day. Most European Nato allies, notably Germany, have rebuffed US pressure to do more on the ground.

With Obama preparing formally to unveil his strategy in the coming days, the US-driven neighbours conference next week may bring some order to this policy mishmash — or not.

In Afghanistan Obama inherited a quagmire. It gets deeper with every step he takes. — The Guardian