Tide Turns on Afghanistan

Posted July 07, 2010, at 5:10 p.m.

The votes by both Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree against the recent emergency supplemental funding bill for the war in Afghanistan should not be dismissed as political posturing. The reasons each representative gave for opposing the funding — which ultimately passed in the House — is telling.

The war, long supported by most Americans and by elected officials in both parties, is now being trumped by concerns about the domestic economy. The recent command shake-up brought the war to the forefront of national news. The death of two Maine soldiers in that conflict last month brought it home. The month of June was the deadliest for American troops since the war began.

As with all military engagements, the terms by which the success or failure of the war is measured depend upon understanding the goals at the outset of the conflict. The war in Afghanistan is now the nation’s oldest war, beginning in the fall of 2001. At that time, the mission was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, who was behind the 9-11 terrorist attacks, to destroy or at least disrupt the al-Qaida terrorist organization and to topple the Taliban religious leaders who ruled the country because they provided safe haven for al-Qaida.

Mr. bin Laden remains at large, al-Qaida has reconstituted in Pakistan and elsewhere and the Taliban retains the support of people in many of the Afghan tribal areas.

The mission is being redefined with the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus. His success with the surge in Iraq, though, may not be easily transposed onto Afghanistan. The conflict is still understood by most Americans as a military campaign, yet many observers say it is more nation building at this point. While the dangerous and often deadly counterinsurgency work is important, giving the Hamid Karzai government the support its needs to legitimately hold power and govern now is the dominant goal.

Rep. Michaud cited the strain multiple deployments have on troops and their families, and the cost of the conflict. “The cost of the war has now exceeded $1 trillion, with billions of dollars more that will be needed to continue our current strategy in the region.”

Rep. Pingree said the loss of American lives was unacceptable and the money spent in Afghanistan would be better used cutting the federal deficit and boosting the domestic economy. “Last week the Senate voted not to extend unemployment benefits or pass funding that would help keep firefighters and teachers on the job because, they said, we couldn’t afford it,” she said on the House floor. “Isn’t it time to start asking whether we can afford a war that costs us $7 billion a month?”

Both Reps. Pingree and Michaud have voted against such appropriations before, but five years ago such votes would have been political suicide for representatives facing re-election in four months. If chaos and conflict ensue in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdraws, the best U.S. strategy may be to rely on intelligence and targeted strikes. A stable, pro-West democracy in Afghanistan is unlikely, and more to the point, unaffordable.

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