Americans deserve answers about path forward in worsening Afghanistan

Posted Oct. 02, 2009, at 7:52 p.m.

In August, a Marine from New Portland and a soldier from Oakland lost their lives in combat in Afghanistan. Their deaths underscore the reality of an Afghanistan that has become increasingly dangerous and difficult due to a resurgence of the Taliban, pervasive corruption and an ineffective government. In the coming weeks, the president must decide whether to send more American troops beyond the additional troops he ordered deployed earlier this year, bringing the current total to about 68,000.

To be sure, the report of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is alarming. He describes the situation in Afghanistan as serious and deteriorating and warns that the mission will end in failure unless a counterinsurgency strategy, which requires an extensive number of troops, is fully imple-mented. This is the same assessment I received from the general when I met with him in Afghanistan in August. I have enormous respect for Gen. McChrystal and want him to come before the Armed Services Committee to present his proposed strategy and to respond to questions.

The decision facing the president and Congress is not an easy one. The questions are complex: Would the deployment of more American troops achieve the goal of a stable and secure Afghanistan? Or notwithstanding the tremendous skill and courage of our troops and military leaders, do obstacles such as Afghanistan’s historic resistance to foreign powers, the narco-trafficking and the rampant corruption make this goal unachievable? Can a counterinsurgency strategy work in a country where there is a shadow over the legitimacy of the government due to electoral fraud? What will be the impact on Pakistan? And, as Gen. David Petraeus famously asked about Iraq, “How does this end?”

Some military experts predict that even a troop level of 110,000 Americans supplemented by NATO forces will be insufficient to protect the Afghan population, a central tenet of a counterinsurgency strategy. One expert told me last week that this strategy would require our troops to be engaged in combat operations for the next three to five years with a residual troop presence for many years after that. This would be an enormous investment, both in lives and in taxpayers’ money.

Other experts contend that we have no choice: If we do not secure Afghanistan, the Taliban will once again control the country and provide a safe haven for al-Qaida to plan its attacks against the West. They fear that Pakistan will be destabilized, putting its nuclear weapons at risk of falling into the hands of terrorists, a night-mare scenario.

President Barack Obama is weighing the alternatives. He must decide on a strategy and goals for Afghanistan and the region and make the case to the American people. Because Congress will be asked to oversee and fund the war, it is critical that we ask the tough questions.

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I have traveled to Afghanistan four times since 2001. Each time, I have discussed our operations not only with American and Afghan leaders, but also with the brave men and women on the front lines who are carrying out this mission every day. I also have joined my col-leagues on both sides of the aisle in questioning our leaders about our operations in Afghanistan as well as Iraq in countless oversight hearings. We questioned the strategy and pressed for benchmarks to assess progress. We brought up the strain that repeated deployments have imposed on our troops and their families. We pressed for more accurate intelligence assessments and better equipment to protect our troops. We raised the issues of diplomacy, nation building and the role of our NATO allies.

The situation in Afghanistan has not been static during the past eight years; in the last year, it has changed and worsened considerably as Gen. McChrystal has emphasized. My most recent journey to Afghanistan did convince me of one required step: Whether or not we need a surge of American troops, we certainly need a surge of Afghan troops. When I was in Helmand province, where the Taliban controls much of the territory, I learned that there are 10,000 American troops in the region, but only about 800 Afghan troops. This is unacceptable.

The American people deserve answers to significant questions about the way forward in Afghanistan. That is why it is critical that the president make his decision and that Gen. McChrystal testify soon before Congress to present his strategy and explain his recommendations. A careful judgment is required in recognition of the thousands of American men and women who are putting their lives on the line every day.

Susan Collins is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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