The classic metaphor is watching two trains chug along toward each other in slow motion, knowing that they will collide head-on but being unable to do anything about it. That's what the Administration's Afghanistan policy looks like. The president made his speech at West Point, declaring that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. That will bring the total up to about 100,000 U.S. troops in-country. At the same time, he said that they would begin withdrawing in July 2011, barely a year after the last of them arrive. However, he added later in the speech, "Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground." And there's the rub. No sooner had the speech been made than senior administration officials like the Secretary of Defense, the president's National Security Adviser, and the Commander of U.S. Central Command, were saying publicly that the president's withdrawal date isn't real. We could be there in significant strength for years after that date.
General Stanley McChrystal, our commander in Afghanistan, wants to expand Afghan army and police security forces to a total of 400,000. That was his original plan, and he's apparently sticking to it, even though President Obama told him that goal was too high. He won't have the troops and the time to do it, but if he doesn't do it, the chances are the Kabul government won't survive and the Taliban insurgency won't be contained after U.S. and NATO forces depart.
What vital U.S. interests are involved and how will they be furthered by additional expenditures of blood and treasure in Afghanistan? Hard to say, really. Propping up a corrupt regime in a backward country isn't a vital American interest. If that were to mean that al-Qaeda could no longer plan or inspire attacks against us because they couldn't operate from Afghanistan, that would be fine. But it doesn't mean that. They'll just go somewhere else; in fact, they've already decamped to Pakistan. Stability in the region, particularly in nuclear-armed Pakistan, is a valid U.S. interest, however, it isn't clear that defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, assuming we can do it, will further stability in Pakistan. In fact, having driven al-Qaeda across the border into Pakistan has served only to further destabilize that chaotic country, and continued involvement in Afghanistan could make matters worse.
The more we know, the more we should be seriously concerned about the president's strategy for Afghanistan. At best, we'll muddle through for a few more years, then pull out long before the job is finished, assuming it can ever be finished. At worst, we'll suffer many more casualties and spend many billions more to achieve nothing more than we could have had by pulling out now.
Stephen Biddle, of the Council on Foreign Relations, made the following statement in congressional testimony:
Public support for the war in Afghanistan has been falling for much of the last year. The manifest corruption of Afghan elections last summer aggravated this decline, but it was ongoing well beforehand and stems from deeper causes. Americans have increasingly been asking fundamental questions about the war: do we have important interests at stake? Can we secure them? Will the cost of securing them be tolerable?…
This war is neither the obvious necessity that its strongest supporters claim, nor the clear loser that its opponents typically see. The war engages important, but indirect, U.S. interests. It will be expensive to wage properly, could require many years to resolve, and might ultimately fail even if waged vigorously, but failure is not guaranteed and the U.S. enjoys advantages that other outsiders in Afghanistan have not. “Middle way” options designed to secure our interests but cut our costs, moreover, have important shortcomings and are unlikely to offer an escape from these dilemmas.
…the balance of cost and risk suggests a war that is worth waging, but only barely – yet one worth waging vigorously if we are to do so at all. What is clearest, however, is that neither the case for the war nor the case against it is beyond challenge or without important counterarguments.
Biddle's statement is worth reading in full because it lays out clearly the challenges we face in Afghanistan and some of the options available.
As I noted in an earlier article, it's instructive to apply the principles of the Powell Doctrine to our strategy for Afghanistan. It falls short on all points.
"Assessing U.S. Options for Afghanistan", Stephen Biddle, CFR
"U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead," Colin L. Powell, Foreign Affairs, Winter 92/93
President Obama's Speech on Afghanistan (transcript), ABC News
"Obama aides fine-tune meaning of Afghan withdrawal date", CNN
"Work to be done", Editorial, The Washington Post
“With Obama’s strategy, Afghanistan looks like another Vietnam”, George McGovern, The Washington Post
"Assessing The Threat In Afghanistan", Peter Bergen, NPR
Interview with Colin Powell, The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC
"The Powell Doctrine", Doug DuBrin, PBS
"Powell Doctrine", Wikipedia
"The World Factbook: Afghanistan", CIA