Ambiguity over strategy in Afghanistan is understandable

Afghanistan confounds me.

Apparently, I share with President Barack Obama and untold numbers of Americans, conflicting thoughts about what we should do next in a country where our military has been fighting for seven years.

My conflict has a very personal aspect, however. If Obama accepts Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation to add up to 60,000 more American troops to our forces already in Afghanistan, it will increase the likelihood that our son, Derek, a sergeant in the Army Reserves, will be deployed to that country for a second tour. I’m sure families of other military personnel share that concern.

Derek already spent nearly a year in Afghanistan in 2006, following several months in Pakistan with his Chinook helicopter unit to help with the rescue and cleanup following the 2005 earthquake there. As anyone who has experienced having a loved one in a combat zone can tell you, time moves very slowly while they are gone. Even when your mind is occupied with day-to-day tasks, there is an unsettling worry always nagging at you.

But I can’t dismiss Gen. McChrystal’s recommendation for more troops just because I don’t like how it may affect my family. I decided to consult someone with more experience on this than me — Sgt. Derek Silbernagel.

“For us, I think the best thing to do is come home. I think the U.S. is completely exhausted with this and Iraq, and everyone I know would like for us to come home,” he told me. “But for the Afghan people, that would probably be terrible.”

That view was supported by a news article I saw on the Internet last week. It involved Code Pink, the group formed in this country to oppose the war in Iraq. Code Pink has also voiced concerns about the growing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The point of the article was that, after consulting with some Afghan women leaders and understanding their fears about what would happen if the United States pulled out and the Taliban returned to power, Code Pink was rethinking its views on our involvement in Afghanistan.

Hey, if Code Pink is conflicted about what we’re doing in that mountainous country, I guess I can be, too. So can President Obama.

I know he said in March that he was committed to what he called this “war of necessity,” and that he would ensure whatever resources were necessary would be made available to reverse the gains of the Taliban and promote a more stable Afghan government. But the situation on the ground has changed since then. It has worsened. More Americans have died there this year than in previous years. Any leader not bound entirely by his or her ego should be willing to reassess strategy in such a case.

Recall that President George W. Bush did just that in Iraq when the situation was disintegrating. He listened then to Gen. David Petraeus and approved the surge that took the fight to the terrorists there and ultimately stabilized that country. Whether it will remain stable is a different question, but it’s undeniable that the surge worked in military terms.

The question now is whether President Obama should accept the recommendation of his general, the man he chose to assume control in Afghanistan, who is also calling for a surge in troops.

I sought advice from another expert, Col. John Silbernagel, U.S. Army, retired, and my father. (The military gene seems to skip a generation in my family. My great-grandfather fought in the Civil War, but my grandfather, like me, wasn’t in the military.)

My father served in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army in World War II. He also served with Selective Service during the Vietnam War, and has always believed that war could have been won if we had allowed the military leaders to develop and implement a war strategy. Instead, they were forced into half measures concocted by politicians fearful of the protests at home, he believes.

When it comes to Afghanistan, though, my father shares my ambiguity. He is uncertain whether additional troops can secure the country. Joe Biden’s approach may be the best one, he said. Take the troops out of Afghanistan, but continue critical intelligence. If there is evidence of al-Qaida and the Taliban gearing up new terrorist training camps or other facilities, send in the drone aircraft to blow them up.

As of this writing, President Obama seems to have rejected that alternative. He has said he doesn’t plan to reduce troop strength in Afghanistan, but he has not yet committed to approving McChrystal’s plan for more troops.

The military history of Afghanistan is littered with tales of would-be conquerors who foundered in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. From Alexander the Great oveer 2,000 years ago, to the British in the 19th Century and the Soviets in the last one, the geography and shifting tribal allegiances of the populace have stumped many military commanders.

But trying to compromise with halfway measures may be the worst strategy of all, one that guarantees we don’t control the Taliban or really stabilize the country, even as more Americans and our NATO allies are killed.

Here’s my son Derek again: “If we really want it to succeed, we have to stay until it’s stabilized,” he said. “Either we wash our hands of it entirely, or we stay until it’s done.”

I think washing our hands of it now would be a terrible betrayal of the millions of Afghans who have trusted us. And it will invigorate terroists around the world.

A tough decision, but one the commander in chief must make soon.


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