2009-10-01 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Obama Can’t Let Afghanistan Become Another Quagmire
By Neil S. Friedman

President Barack Obama’s poll numbers are not nearly what they were when he took office over eight months ago but, after a chaotic summer over health care reform, they seem to have leveled off. All the same, his popularity could tumble further if his administration doesn’t soon craft a sound policy over U.S. involvement in Viet…uh, I mean Afghanistan.

That wasn’t a Freudian slip, but a deliberate error to draw attention to the fact that the longer we remain in that unstable nation plagued by terror and insurgency the more it starts to resemble our failure in Vietnam that ended with our awkward withdrawal in 1975 — a decade after the loss of 58,000 GIs. Gratefully, the combined death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan is unlikely to top 1,000 anytime soon.

Despite the disparity in KIAs, we can no longer think of Afghanistan as the Other Middle East War, even as our Iraqi involvement winds down. Afghanistan is now front and center in our foreign policy dilemma and the public is growing gradually more dissatisfied with the situation. July, with 44 dead soldiers, and August, with 51, were the deadliest months since America’s invasion eight years ago to presumably defeat the terrorist nucleus that attacked us on 9/11. However, the longer we remain, the more likely it is that the number of dead and injured soldiers will grow quicker than the president’s popularity. Not to mention throwing taxpayers’ money at what seems like an unmanageable struggle.

The U.S. has had a presence in Afghanistan for eight years. Remember, the USSR spent a decade there with nothing to show for it and, more significantly, that hopeless campaign was a key element in the ensuing collapse of Soviet Communism. Prolonged involvement without results won’t fuel the end of democracy as we know it, but it could hurt Obama’s reelection chances in three years.

Afghanistan policy was aimless when Obama took office last January since his predecessor was more intent on mopping up the mess he brought about next door in Iraq. Consequently, President Bush barely made a halfhearted effort in Afghanistan, despite the fact that it was where Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks on the U.S., was believed to be hiding in caves with his followers.

Obama wants U.S. strategy in the region directed at dismantling and disrupting Al Qaeda, but he’s never specified how long that policy would remain in place or how long American troops will remain on Afghan soil.

Just last week, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who heads the allied force in Afghanistan, called for more troops — somewhere between 10-45,000 in the next year - to effectively carry on the mission. That sort of request is expected from generals on the battlefield. Nevertheless, as the president and his staff mull over the request, they’ve got to flesh out a strategy that, if at all possible, will lead to victory and breaking up Al Qaeda or one that will the get us out as soon as possible.

Obama said the war in Afghanistan was a “necessity” last summer, but as the international effort increasingly fails, he has modified his stance. That position was plain in his recent Sunday talk show blitz. On “Face the Nation,” the president said he doesn’t have “a definite withdrawal” in mind, but added that he doesn’t believe in “indefinite occupations of other countries.” The next day he told David Letterman, he “has not yet decided whether to send more troops to Afghanistan.”

The president is faced with mounting opposition to escalating our presence in Afghanistan from our skittish NATO allies and the general population. Before sending more U.S. troops, Obama has indicated he wants any new Afghanistan strategy to be worth the risks. That’s the wisest course because the current U.S. plan to prepare the Afghan army to repel the Taliban resurgence and to bolster the nation’s corrupt government, even after an election rife with fraudulent results, which is partly financed by an unchecked opium trade, seems dubious.

Eight years after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC, most Americans are war weary. Nonetheless, as slippery as Osama bin Laden has been, nothing would be more welcome than to see the 9/11 organizer captured or killed. Yet, our efforts to that end have thus far proved futile while he remains in what can best be described as a selfstyled witness protection program with help from a devout group of followers that keep him secreted from enemy military and intelligence operatives.

The time has come for the president to thoroughly examine his options before making a crucial decision on America’s future in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, before he acts on any troop surge request — from essentially the same sources that urged a similar increase in Iraq from his predecessor — Barack Obama must endorse a sound strategy with clear-cut goals to avoid our Afghanistan mission from becoming the kind of quagmire that splintered this country two generations ago.

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