The wrong road out of Afghanistan

It was no snap decision that led President Barack Obama to announce he will deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan next year. As anyone who’s been following the news is aware, the president took months to formulate his Afghan strategy. Some critics contend he took too long.

No one should begrudge Obama the time to carefully analyze the situation in that region and the options available to him. Afghanistan is a troublesome region that had not suffered a military defeat since Genghis Khan’s Mongols devastated the region in 1219 — 800 years before U.S. troops arrived there.

Unfortunately, we’re not convinced that the path Obama has chosen out of Afghanistan is the best one, for a number of reasons.

First, we do not see a clearly defined and attainable objective in U.S. involvment in Afghanistan. In the spirit of the Powell Doctornie, what would constitute a “win” in Afghanistan? And with such a win, should it happen, what national interest would be served? In the end, is there a clearly defined exit strategy?

Second, while the latest troop increase is called a “surge,” it is far different than the surge that sent additional troops to Iraq in 2007 and helped quell the violence in that war-torn country. Whether that fragile peace lasts is still an open question, but this November was the least bloody month in Iraq — both in civilian deaths and U.S. troop casualties — since the war began in 2003.

A major difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that Iraq is a substantially urbanized nation, even in areas outside the Baghdad capital. U.S. troops involved in the surge there saw heavy combat in multiple cities, but they could determine where enemy forces were, attack them and drive them out of an area. Then, working with increasingly better-trained Iraqi forces, they could hold the areas they won, forcing insurgents to continuously retreat.

In Afghanistan, outside of Kabul and to a lesser extent Kandahar, the nation is primarily rural, primitive and isolated. Push the Taliban out of one area and they retreat to the hills, then return as soon as allied forces move out, often terrorizing any villagers perceived to have helped the U.S. troops.

In addition to boosting the number of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, Obama has plans to improve the training of Afghan army and police forces, so they can one day provide security for their country, much as Iraqi forces are now doing. That would be great, except that both the army and police forces have been mired in corruption for years, and individual loyalty among provincial Afghans goes first and foremost to their clan, not to some abstract notion of nation.

Furthermore, Afghan support for a greater military presence by the United States and its allies seems to be slipping, even in Kabul. A news article in The Wall Street Journal Tuesday quoted both government officials and tribal leaders as questioning Obama’s surge plans.

As a result, unlike in Iraq, the United States cannot count on broad support from local groups to help locate and fight the enemy. More and more people in Afghanistan view U.S. troops as occupiers, not rescuers, the Journal article said.

Obama faces another obstacle to his plans — growing opposition among liberal Democrats and a few Republicans in Congress to the cost of fighting in Afghanistan. That coincides with polls showing waning public support for our continued presence in Afghanistan.

Those obstacles most likely could be overcome if the president articulated clear objectives for spending more taxpayer money and putting more U.S. military personnel in danger in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the goals appear as mushy as President Bush’s were after the Iraq war had dragged on a few years.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said this week the goal is to “transfer the responsibility” to Afghanistan’s security forces as they meet unspecified political and civilian benchmarks. That’s not clear enough.

Rather than put more Americans in harm’s way in a region where foreign armies have repeatedly failed and building a true Afghan democracy is all but impossible, Obama should boost U.S. intelligence in the region, and have a rapid strike force prepared to go in and destroy any potential terrorist training camps, headquarters or other sound threats.


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