By Marc Seltzer; originally published on November 30, 2009, at care2.com
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When President Barack Obama addresses the nation on Tuesday evening, December 1, from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I will be looking for the President to answer specific questions I have about the United States’ conduct of the war in Afghanistan.
I would like to hear Mr. Obama state clearly the current objective. Is it to build a modern nation in Afghanistan, create a quasi-democratic state, or simply stand a government that can police its own population and take actions that support U.S. security objectives? Eighty percent of Afghanistan’s population live in 32,000 rural villages. Economic and political life is different there than in modern societies, and I want to see that the President’s plan does not rest on unrealistic expectations and assumptions.
President Bush’s military mission in Afghanistan was to remove the Taliban from power and stop Al Qaeda and its associates from conducting violent action against the United States. The initial invasion succeeded in ending the Taliban national government, and the ongoing campaign has forced Al Qaeda to seek more hospitable territory elsewhere. However, installing a democratic government with control of the entire country has proved impossible, and in the face of such difficulty, the mission has become less clear.
The most important issue in the war in Afghanistan may be its impact on Pakistan. If any nation could be the catalyst for a WWIII scenario it is a nation with a nuclear arsenal and a violent extremist insurgency. Pakistani Taliban and other insurgents are actively fighting against the democratic government of Pakistan and lethal bombings of civilian and military targets are becoming daily occurrences. An all-out civil war in Pakistan would be catastrophic and could require international forces to secure nuclear weapons, at the very least. If this is part of the calculation of continuing our military effort in neighboring Afghanistan, Mr. Obama should say so. The Bush administration played fast-and-lose with the reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq, and confidence in American credibility suffered as a result.
And then there’s the Vietnam question. Are we even capable of defeating the Taliban?
In Vietnam, we were unwilling to risk a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union and China, and yet could not defeat the North Vietnamese people without risking such an all-out superpower war. Thus, we were in an unwinnable war with no good diplomatic solutions.
While there is no superpower behind insurgent forces in Afghanistan, there is significant support in the population and financial backing from abroad. We have been fighting insurgents for eight years and are no closer to victory.
It is a combination of troop strength and strategy that will make or break the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Not just critics of the war, but top military brass, have said that a political solution is ultimately necessary. In Iraq, an important part of the “surge” strategy was hiring the unemployed former army members and others who were fighting against us. The concurrent increase in U.S. troops also supported government and military efforts to control violence, but the change in strategy was key. A similar initiative to pay local Talibs to switch sides is now underway in Afghanistan.
If the new strategy for Afghanistan is not producing positive results in a year or two, will the President accept defeat and withdraw our resources? There is evidence that President Lyndon Johnson did not want to be involved in the Vietnam war and did not think it was winnable. Yet, he continued to increase American participation based on domestic political consequences and complex international uncertainties. However, our resources are precious and should be used with serious intentions, not squandered, or commited by default.
Will there be an honest assessment as to whether the new strategy in Afghanistan is working? Does the President have the courage to recognize and accept failure? It was one thing to refuse to accept defeat in a WWII. The war against Germany and Japan saw a far greater commitment of resources and manpower. Our entire nation was transformed into an armament factory and the committment to destroy the enemy and remake its society was total. On the military front, we used all the force we had and accepted both our own heavy losses and devastating destruction of German and Japanese civilian targets. Total victory was necessary and total defeat was not an option. However, the situation in Afghanistan is not a world war. Failure of a operation does not mean the surrender of all objectives. Only fourteen years after South Vietnam fell to the Communist North, the Berlin Wall came down and international communism was on its way out. (If you still have an image of Communism guiding China and Vietnam today, travel there and test your ideas. Both nations provide thriving business environments and gradual reforms).
The lesson here is that we should not follow a failing strategy for long. The risk of failure is substantial, and the President and his military command must be able to evaluate and change course, as necessary, including abandoning losing causes.
I will listen with an open mind to the President’s reasoning on Afghanistan. What I hope to hear is not so much an answer that fits my preconceived notions, but an explanation of the U.S. mission there and a realistic assessment of strategy designed to achieve our goals.
Point of contention is whether it makes sense to ramp up the battle now, while at the same time saying that we intend to start transferring responsibility for security to the Afghan authorities by mid 2011. Is this just the usual attack on the President, or is there a contradition here? Can we say that we are only willing to spend so much time and money (and risk to our troops) and that that time is running out — a limmited commitment — without hurting our chances of success? It is a legitimate question, but the benefits of such a policy may still outweigh the costs.