Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What To Do About Afghanistan?

So as the 8-year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan (known officially as Operation Enduring Freedom) comes upon us tomorrow, we are also coming upon what is being touted as one of the biggest tests so far of the Obama administration-how to respond to the report from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of US & NATO forces in Afghanistan, which requests 40,000 additional troops and claims that failure to deliver on that request will ultimately spell defeat. The stakes are indeed high, with every option on the table carrying risks, and none of them in any way coming close to guaranteeting a positive outcome. Whatever decision is made carries with it the potential to dramatically affect the morale and security of the United States, the Afghani people, the Taliban, and worldwide radical Islamic movements and terror groups such as Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Let's examine some of the possibilites on the table and their pros, cons, and possible outcomes:

1) Obama accedes to Gen. McChrystal and orders 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan
-Pros: Shows the U.S. means business in stopping the Taliban from taking over the country and stopping the re-grouping of Al-Qaeda. Hopefully, this would also increase the actual success of US & NATO forces and help train Afghani security forces and (re)build civilian infrastructure, paving the way for a landscape such that in time Western forces can leave with a secure belief that the Taliban will not take over again and that Afghanistan will no longer be a terrorist haven. The support for this strategy comes largely from the troop surge that was sent to Iraq in Jan. 2007, where 21,000 additional soldiers were sent in. After about 6 months, there was a marked decrease in sectarian violence, though of course things still remained unstable and do to this day. However, it marked a dramatic decrease from the daily bloodshed in 2003-06. It should be noted that Obama made good on a campaign promise earlier this year and sent in 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan; however, little positive seems to have come out of that move. If this move is successful, then the question becomes-do we send in even more troops?
-Cons: Sending 40,000 troops in no way guarantees any advancement on the part of the US & NATO. Sending an Afghanistan "surge" means spending even more money, and (much more importantly) putting even more troops in harm's way. At that point the only thing that is certain is that greater troop numbers means greater American casualty numbers. And if this increase in troops does not lead to greater stability or greater progress in the American war effort, the questions being asked now, about whether too much is being invested in a losing effort, and at what point the line is drawn between build-up and withdrawal, will be asked with greater force. Getting such a large influx of war resources may also take some difficult wrangling from Congress, which has seen so much go into Aghanistan-and so little positive outcome-over the past 8 years.

2) Obama accepts the McChrystal report in part but orders a moderate increase, say 10-20,000 troops
-Pros: This could have a chance at success in cutting down the Taliban, bringing stability, damaging Al-Qaeda, and contributing to the American/NATO war effort. At the least it certainly wouldn't hinder the American effort to have more troops around. It would also cost less and put fewer troops in harm's way, and likely be much easier in domestic political terms to obtain from Congress.
-Cons: It does not seem likely that a relatively small upsurge in military presence will be enough to turn the tide in Afghanistan. Theoretically, were it that easy, that would have been requested by Gen. McChrystal or would have already been done or raised by this point. Sending more troops in a situation with such a low probability of success begs the question of why commit soldiers to an operation when it is thought from the outset to be unlikely to change anything.

3) Obama rejects the McChrystal report in its entirety and maintains the status quo
-Pros: No additional throwing of money or people into something that will not seem to improve by sheer increase in amount of resources. Also means no political battles with Congress.
-Cons: Obviously, if the current levels of resources were being successful, then there would be no need to be having discussion about this topic and no need to ask for 40,000 more troops. Obama would also look as if he didn't actually take any action as Commander-in-Chief and lose much public and military support.

4) Obama sees the entire Afghanistan effort as a failure and begins a withdrawal process
-Pros: No more dumping people and money on a drawn-out military effort that is increasinly losing public support. Obama and the U.S gain the ability to focus on other domestic and foreign issues-such as the growth of the Taliban in Pakistan. The troops come home.
-Cons: Oh, so many drawbacks. Radical Islamic terror groups worldwide see the U.S. as weak in the face of terror and feel they can act with relative impunity. The Taliban re-takes Afghanistan and is perhaps even more brutal than before. It also gains strength in Pakistan and threatens stability in that nation and the Indian sub-continent. All socioeconomic advancements the U.S. and others helped create in Afghanistan are wiped out. Ultimately, this would cause the U.S. to look back at 8 years and have nothing successful to show for its' efforts and those of its allies.

In examining this impromput foreign policy diatribe, I am surprised to find myself agreeing with option #1, to send a surge to Afghanistan. While I understand that it puts greater numbers of troops in harm's way, that is indeed what the military exists for-to be used when needed. And to secure Afghanistan and repel the Taliban and Al-Qaeda certainly is a cause worthy of American military use.

But what if a troop surge fails, or accomplishes little? Then I think we have to consider the possibility of essentially withdrawing from the country. That would, as noted above, be disastrous on so many fronts, and Al-Qaeda and its allies would claim victory. Were this unfortunate scenario be the case, I would hope/envision that at least the U.S. would maintain an air patrol over the country. This would be similar to Operation Northern Watch, which ran in Iraq from Jan. 1997-Mar. 2003. During this time, the US & European allies flew constant missions over northern Iraq to protect its Kurdish population which had often been targeted by Saddam Hussein, including coming under chemical in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War. I could see a similar operation in Afghanistan, with the Air Force targeting Al-Qaeda installations but little to no ground presence.

Part of the problem of Afghanistan is that too much was expected too quickly, and war goals in recent years have not been clear. It was thought that in Oct. 2001 that the Taliban would be toppled, a Western democracy installed, and support for terrorism over. But while toppling the Taliban was initally easy, they have come back much stronger than thought. Meanwhile, the transition to democracy has been exponentially more difficult than was assumed-societies do not transition so quickly, especially when many have a lot to lose if that transition is successful, such as the poppy farmers. Many Afghanis see the U.S. as no less imperalist than the Soviets or British before them and want to maintain their way of life.

Pres. Obama has a difficult and historic choice before him. Let us hope he makes the right one and that U.S. avoids the fate of the Russians and British in leaving with nothing but shame and failure.