Rethinking Afghanistan

Posted Sept. 04, 2009, at 7:41 p.m.

Nearly eight years after invading Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the United States faces difficult decisions. Should the U.S. send in more soldiers to combat the Taliban, risking their becoming trapped in a quagmire? Or should the U.S. pull back, although that likely means that increasing numbers of Afghans will be killed and that reforms will be undone?

Neither is a good option, but as Sen. Susan Collins said recently, Afghanistan is not called the graveyard of empires for nothing. The U.S. notion of creating a democratic country run by moderates is headed for the graveyard. Congress and President Barack Obama must now decide whether it is worth staying in Afghanistan while pursuing more moderate goals or whether it is time to allow Afghans to take control of the situation — no matter how dire.

Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal issued his assessment, after 60 days in Afghanistan, to President Obama this week. Although the document is classified, news reports indicate it paints a dire picture of the country where violence is on the rise and the Taliban is increasingly back in charge. The report is expected to call for a shift in focus from routing the Taliban to protecting Afghan citizens. It also says that Afghan forces should take the lead in this work, but that they won’t be ready for three years or more.

This sounds a lot like Iraq, another country the U.S. invaded as part of the war on terror. Many more troops were sent to Iraq than Afghanistan, but Iraqi forces still struggle to contain violence there. If those troops had been sent to Afghanistan instead, the situation there would likely be vastly improved, but it is far too late to undo that bad decision.

In coming weeks there is expected to be a push for Congress to approve sending more troops to Afghanistan. More American soldiers should be sent to Afghanistan only if corresponding effort and resources — money and people — are sent to build the civil infrastructure needed to stabilize the country and there is a clear plan for achieving these goals. Otherwise, as the past eight years have shown, the military gains are fleeting.

Sen. Collins recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. “The situation in Afghanistan has worsened significantly,” she wrote in her blog. Part of the reason is that there aren’t enough troops, from the United States, NATO countries and Afghanistan to counter the Taliban.

But, as important, she said in an interview, there aren’t enough civilians following up the military efforts. U.S. marines are doing a valiant job of clearing the Taliban village-by-village, she said, but their work is for naught if it is not followed up with work to build civil institutions. For example, poppy eradication — the flowers are a lucrative source of heroin — has long been part of the U.S. strategy. But, if farmers have no other options, they will continue to grow poppies to support their families. She suggests that intensive efforts to work with Afghan farmers to grow other crops could be more effective. The same strategy could apply to building a judicial system and other government services to give Afghans an alternative to working for the Taliban, which many do out of necessity, not a belief in the Taliban’s extremist ideology.

Anthony Cordesman, a member of the team advising Gen. McChrystal on strategy in Afghanistan, reached a similar conclusion. “Between 2002 and 2008 the United States never provided the forces, money or leadership necessary to win, effectively wasting more than half a decade,” he wrote in a recent column in The Washington Post.

“We have a reasonable chance of victory if we properly outfit and empower our new team in Afghanistan; we face certain defeat if we do not,” he concluded.

It is unconscionable, given the number of American soldiers and Afghan civilians killed, that years have been wasted and that U.S. goals remain undefined. Still, Congress and the president must — belatedly — make a clear-eyed assessment of what is achievable and what it will cost, in terms of money, effort and lives. If they are not ready or unable to fully commit the needed resources to accomplish specified goals, it is time to plan for our departure.

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