The country is a land mine. If not handled properly, it will blow a hole in the Obama presidency before the midterm elections.
Afghanistan is a land mine. If not handled properly, it will blow a hole in the Obama presidency before the midterm elections. Peering down the barrel of the Afghan war, Yogi Berra would have said, “Don’t make the wrong mistake.” With Iraq consuming 4,000 American lives, 33,000 wounded thus far, and costs estimated between $1.5 and $3 trillion, U.S. taxpayers must ask precisely how homeland security is linked to Afghanistan, and if, indeed, they must gird themselves for another war of choice with more loss of American life and fortune while the nation confronts such pressing needs at home.
Barack Obama assumed office with 79 percent of Americans optimistic about his administration, including 59 percent of those who voted for John McCain. It was a moment like few others in modern times: the nation’s nerve endings are raw after eight years of hope and reversals on the bloody fields of Iraq and Afghanistan; controversy surrounds Bush administration policies on civil liberties, executive power and spending; we are shocked by the sharp global disapproval of things American; and our economy is in near freefall. To be fair, George W. Bush has seen us through seven years without further terrorism at home—an important achievement. But the price of suppressing risk at home and abroad is heavy, and the picture for 2009 is not pretty.
Our hopes now rest with an untested president for the vision, determination, and agility that will surely be needed going forward. Analysts are correct when they say Obama has moved to the “center”; one assumes he understands this is not the time for adventure or risk or expenditure on anything but the critical need to restart the economy and maintain the nation’s security. But does he?
Last October Obama said, “The trends across the board are not going in the right direction. Make no mistake: we are confronting an urgent crisis in Afghanistan, and we have to act. It’s time to heed the call from General McKiernan and others for more troops. That’s why I’d send at least two or three additional combat brigades to Afghanistan.”
Since the election Obama and his new choice for chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, have proposed to increase U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan by 35,000. He would redeploy soldiers being withdrawn from Iraq and hopes to persuade the Europeans to provide additional NATO troops. Present plans also call for discussions with the more approachable Taliban elements, outreach programs that emphasize reconciliation and cooperation with tribal elders, and providing local leaders funds to help protect roads, bridges, cell phone towers. And food shipments.
Yet U.S. and British NATO officers returning from their tours of duty are nearly unanimous in saying the Taliban have consolidated their position, that they have the momentum, that things are going in the wrong direction. Troop shortages and a failure to find common ground with local leaders have brought little progress. Despite promises, we have rarely followed up to provide water and electricity to battle-scarred villages, leaving tribesmen alienated and reliant on the Taliban. This has been made worse by our opium eradication program that destroys the cash crop most farmers rely upon to survive.
How Did We Get Here?
Taliban rule in Kabul was broken seven years ago in a lightning 22-day U.S. strike whose ferocity and effectiveness stunned military staffs from Moscow to Beijing to Tehran. Today, however, the Taliban controls all but the capital in this “graveyard of empires” nearly the size of Texas. It’s a violent tribal society rooted in Islamic fundamentalism, with 27 percent literacy, 40 percent unemployment, and 80 political parties. Founded in 1747 when Ahmad Shah Durrani unified the Pashtun tribes, this land of the Khyber Pass, celebrated by Rudyard Kipling, has not been conquered since Alexander the Great. Hoping to maintain a buffer between British India and Russia, Afghan tribesmen held their ground in 1842 to slaughter a British expeditionary force of some 15,000 men— leaving one man to escape and relate the grotesque horrors of the battle.
Then 147 years later, the USSR, bled white over 10 years, was defeated by the mujahideen with help from CIA-supplied Stinger missiles. And today the story remains the same: determined Islamist fighters with al Qaeda assistance, based in the border tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, have fought the NATO coalition to a standstill. Hamid Karzai, known in-country, as the “President of Kabul,” has made little progress in democratizing the country, while U.S. and UK casualties in 2008 were the highest since the 2001 invasion.
Some Hard Questions
As the new administration urges its reluctant British, Canadian, Dutch, and German allies to commit additional troops to the Afghan effort, the time has come for a few hard questions. First, what, exactly, is the U.S. national interest in Afghanistan?
Second, what, exactly, is the objective in Afghanistan: Is it to bring democratic governance to this vast, disconnected tribal system? Is it to pacify one province after another in hopes of bringing stability?
Is it, as analyst Andrew Bacevich says, simply to assure that terrorist forces intent on attacking the U.S. do not assemble there?
Third, is there any example in history of an outside power either subduing Afghanistan or modifying its tribal structure or values?
Fourth, can the American people be persuaded that stabilizing or transforming Afghanistan is worth the price in blood and fortune?
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