Considering the turmoil about how to proceed in Afghanistan, perhaps it is time for the United States to cut its losses and leave this political and military swamp to its own fate. It certainly doesn’t take any genius to understand that current policy is in such disarray that hopes for achieving political stability and long-term defeat of the Taliban are greatly diminished.
In the last 10 days alone, it has become clear that a majority of Americans now have little stomach for greatly enlarging an operation that already has been going on for eight years and promises only an escalation of casualties, both U.S. and Afghani. Recent polls show that nearly 59 percent of the respondents have serious doubts about the way this is going with 51 percent expressing strong to medium opposition to the engagement.
It doesn’t help of course that President Obama seems to be moving away from a military plan that he himself presented and heartily endorsed only six months ago and now is considering shifting strategy again, leaving his military commanders uncertain whether he will authorize more troops without whom U.S. efforts are bound to fail, according to a classified assessment by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. McChrystal’s warning was contained in a report leaked to the press.
Obama’s delay ostensibly stems from his desire to get the results from an investigation into allegations of major corruption in the recent election but it also is clearly a response to increasing public unrest over the growing U.S death toll attributed to a limited air strike strategy aimed at decreasing Afghan civilian casualties. The approach leaves U.S. ground forces in remote areas vulnerable. While there have been fewer Afghan deaths, American losses more than doubled this year over last.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that the decision about next year’s troop levels can wait until the political situation shakes down. But congressional Democrats and some Republicans have made it clear they are deeply concerned about both the present strategy and pouring more troops into what seems more and more a quagmire. Without those troops, as was the case in Iraq before the so-called surge, most military commanders believe the situation will remain untenable.
One can recall a similar warning from former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki who is now secretary of Veterans Affairs. Just before the Iraq invasion his contention that it would take from 250,000 to 300,000 troops to keep the peace while rebuilding earned him an early retirement because it did not fit the concept of Bush Administration defense officials, mainly Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Shinseki was right and the so-called “surge” of troops later ended a lot of violence.
Certainly, it is difficult if not impossible to win a war without unanimity of strategy. Public disagreements and indecision can only lead to encouragement of the enemy and to an accelerated loss of American lives. Afghanistan’s Taliban regime and not Iraq should have been the primary target after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack. The vicious Muslim fundamentalists had been openly harboring Osama bin Laden and much of the rest of the al Qaeda hierarchy. Instead George W. Bush, utterly misguided by bad intelligence, bad advice from Pentagon civilians and Israeli interests, made an obviously bad decision to put the balance of the effort into Iraq.
That of course is pure hindsight, but as they say, it is basically accurate. Equally troubling, however, is the fact that the current president is stuttering over what to do now. It seems perfectly clear even to those unschooled in military strategy that an answer to that question needs to come rather quickly. Why kill any more Americans while these guys get their heads on straight, especially when there is at least an appearance of diminishing commitment in the administration and in Congress?
Americans are increasingly wondering whether we should be propping up a government that has been corrupt from top to bottom almost from the beginning and probably will collapse the minute we leave no matter how much effort we put into getting its forces ready to stand-alone.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)