With President Obama’s decision on a revised strategy for Afghanistan imminent, both sides in the debate have heated up their rhetorical warfare. On the one side, there are those who view Afghanistan as the central front in the war on violent Islamic extremism. They argue that there is a close linkage between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and that the loss of Afghanistan would embolden the terrorist organization and provide a haven for their worldwide operations. This faction fully backs the “McChrystal strategy” which called for as many as 80,000 additional U.S. troops to retake southern and eastern Afghanistan from the Taliban and hold it until sufficient Afghan security forces are recruited and trained to defend their country. Finally, they warn that to accept defeat in Afghanistan would irreparably damage our credibility with current allies in the global struggle against terrorism.
On the other side are those who argue that Afghanistan is our new Vietnam. They assert that no amount of additional U.S. military capability can win what is essentially a civil war and that our local partner in this conflict, the Karzai government, is irredeemably incompetent and corrupt. Moreover, they assert, the link between the Taliban and Al Qaeda is tenuous at best, the latter is doing just fine in the ungovernable marches of Western Pakistan, and the costs of fighting for years in Afghanistan (one million dollars a year per soldier) are simply too high.
In reality, both sides have an argument. We know from captured Al Qaeda documents that the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia (remember Blackhawk Down?) inspired the terrorist organization to expand their operations against the United States. There is clearly a linkage between the Taliban and Al Qaeda forged in their mutual battles against the United States and its allies. Moreover, victory of the Taliban-Al Qaeda coalition in Afghanistan could result in a campaign to destabilize Pakistan. A properly resourced and managed counterinsurgency strategy could be successful in Afghanistan as it has been elsewhere, including Iraq. Conversely, it is clear that Al Qaeda is a mere shadow of its former self, that it already appears to be moving its operations away from Southwest Asia and to the ungovernable spaces of North Africa and Southeast Asia. We have a very weak partner in the Karzai government, one that may not improve with time. Finally, there is the huge financial burden associated with funding a protracted conflict, scarce resources that might be better spent on other priorities such as homeland security, health care or deficit reduction, even with a higher risk of new terrorist attacks on this country
Both sides have a credible argument. Both assert that following their course of action will improve the security situation in Afghanistan, the region and, ultimately, that of the United States. That is the president’s dilemma. That is also why, if current press reports are accurate, he is going to firmly straddle the line between the two proposed courses of action. He will provide more troops, but not as many as McChrystal has advised. He will support the Karzai government, but only in certain ways and if it performs specific steps. He will define the outlines of an exit strategy but not provide a specific time table for withdrawal as now exists for Iraq.
In one way, though, the president’s effort to respond to both sides in the debate over an Afghanistan strategy is mistaken. Only one side, the one supporting a surge, proposes a way to seize the strategic initiative and regain a measure of control over the situation and our own destiny. The other side, the one advocating doing less, would cede the initiative to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It would leave it up to our adversaries to decide how complete a victory they want to pursue, whether they want to use Afghanistan as a base to destabilize Pakistan and the region or to re-energize their global campaign of anti-American terrorism. By trying to have it both ways, by getting deeper into Afghanistan while not providing sufficient resources to have the best chance of seizing the initiative, the president is upping the ante without really raising the likelihood of success.
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