Friday, October 2, 2009

Afghanistan War Strategy Revisited

President Obama is still debating with his national security team and certain NATO leaders how the Administration and the Congress should respond to the recent report and recommendations of the U. S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, which includes a substantial increase in U. S. troop strength in that country. Obama is definitely right to take his time and make a well considered decision. He's in a very difficult situation and will likely be seriously criticized no matter what he ends up doing.

As was evident in my post on this subject back in December 2008, I've had very mixed feelings about our engagement there for a long time. I have more concerns now than I had then.

Our original mission when the war began exactly eight years ago, in response to the 9/11 attacks, was to find Bin Laden and other high-ranking Al Qaeda leaders, put them on trial, destroy the organization, and remove the allied Taliban regime which supported Al-Qaeda and gave them protection. With NATO partners we've had some success in killing and capturing some mid-level leaders and removing the Taliban regime, but we haven't found Bin Laden or destroyed the organization. And the Taliban appears to be getting stronger and stronger. Now our mission seems to be moving towards a prime focus on nation-building and winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

It's a noble mission, but should that be our role and can we really afford what that entails in terms of much larger resources and a much longer time commitment, given our country's poorer financial position, other international obligations, and, more importantly, our critical domestic policy needs?? I don't think so! According to the Congressional Research Service, we've already spent $223 billion in Afghanistan for war costs alone! Separate from war costs, we've also spent a great deal of money on development aid and it's growing annually. It was $982 million in 2003 and it grew to $9.3 billion in 2008! And what about the immeasurable costs in military casualties, which number seem to be increasing on an almost daily basis?

A year ago we had 48,250 troops in the country. Now the total is very close to 60,000, and General McChrystal wants that increased substantially up to 40,000 more with a goal to make Afghanistan a relatively stable country. It would be nice to have Afghanistan a stable country, but is that realistically achievable, and at what costs and expected timeframe, and, importantly, should the U. S. be paying for the bulk of this?? I think not. How many other "unstable" countries are there in the world with Al Qaeda cells present? There are several dozen in Africa, including especially Somalia. And what about the Palestinian territories? How about Cambodia? We simply can't stabilize every country. And we can't go to war in every country that has Al Qaeda or Taliban insurgents.

Aside from the costs and other factors referred to above, I have big concerns with the widespread corruption in the Karzai government, clear fraud in their recent national election, the problems posed by the powerful, independent and untrustworthy warlords in the tribal regions with their own private militias, and the vast opium fields which heroin, surpassing 90% of the world's production, financing much of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban's total needs.

What to do? We need to make it very clear to the Afghan leaders, like we did in Iraq, that, while we want to continue helping them, we will not have combat troops there for an extended, indefinite period and we need to see more tangible results from them. The results must include a satisfactory clearing of the air surrounding the recent election, a strong and satisfactory commitment evidenced by specific actions to largely eliminating governmental corruption, and more productive negotiations with the warlords to gain their support and cooperation. We also need to develop a more effective program to deal with the opium fields and helping farmers move to other crops that can provide a decent living.

The U. S. and our NATO allies are not the only countries that have strong strategic interests in achieving a stable Afghanistan and that goes also for neighboring Pakistan. We shouldn't continue to bear the brunt of needed military actions, the resultant casualties, development aid, and the direct and indirect financial costs involved. India and China should also play significant roles, and so should the oil rich countries in the Persian Gulf, of course including Saudi Arabia. Isn't this a virtual no-brainer?