Weighing The Options
As the debate over Afghanistan intensifies, there is one thing nearly everyone in Washington agrees on: President Obama inherited a serious and deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the result of years of inattention and neglect by the Bush administration, in addition to a refusal to send additional troops requested by previous commanders. This past Friday, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, submitted the results of his months-long strategy review, "which held that his mission would likely fail if he is not given reinforcements for his force," now more than 100,000 strong, including about 68,000 Americans. The White House "says it wants to review the entire strategy for the region before considering McChrystal's request." This Sunday on CNN, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the United States has faced major difficulties in Afghanistan because the previous president did not have the same kind of "comprehensive strategy" that Obama does for the effort. Gates said that he thought "the strategy the president put forward in late March is the first real strategy we have had for Afghanistan since the early 1980s." The Washington Post's Bob Woodward reported that "Obama has scheduled at least five meetings with hi s national security team over the next weeks to reexamine the strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan."
AN AFGHAN GOVERNING PARTNER?: The success of the troop escalation and counterinsurgency strategy proposed by McChrystal hinges on having a legitimate and effective Afghan governing partner -- something that, especially in the wake of Afghanistan's controversial recent presidential election, may be impossible. Center for American Progress policy analyst Caroline Wadhams recently wrote that the "fixation on troop levels...appears to be an example of a popular mindset that military force alone can solve our greatest foreign policy challenges" and asserted that "a look at the origins of the Afghan insurgency demands a broader conversation than mere troop levels." A lack of government legitimacy resulting from incompetent and corrupt governance continues to be a key driver of instability in Afghanistan. Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Brian Katulis wrote, "[U]ltimately a leader or a government acquires legitimacy when it delivers on the basic needs of its citizens -- something the current Afghan leadership has not succeeded in doing over the past five years."
CONSERVATIVES REPLAYING IRAQ: Hawkish conservatives have attacked the President for taking too long to make a decision, and attempting to box Obama in by supporting the greatest escalation possible. The neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) -- a re-branded Project for the New American Century, which laid much of the ideological groundwork for the Iraq war -- issued a letter to the President asking him to "fully resource" the Afghanistan effort. Over the weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) implied that the President was endangering the troops by taking so long to make a decision. While rarely acknowledging that Obama has already doubled the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, these conservatives also neglect to mention the main reason that U.S. troops in Afghanistan have been under-resourced for so long: the priority given to the war in Iraq. A number of other figures, however, have voiced support for Obama taking his time. Speaking at an FPI panel, ret. Brig. Gen.Mark McKimmit, who was the Asst. Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs during the Bush administration, defended the Obama administration's decision-making process, saying that, given the extent of the commitment hoped for, this "is going need some deliberation...we don't want to see a rush to failure." Senate Select Intelligence Committee member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) also agreed that the President should take time to consider alternatives that would avoid "nation-building" in Afghanistan for the next decade.
THE DEBATE A DEMOCRACY DESERVES: Given the resources that will be required -- and the lives that will likely be lost -- the vigorous current debate over Afghanistan -- with some leaders strongly questioning whether continuing the U.S. military presence is even necessary -- is appropriate. In the Wall Street Journal, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) wrote that it is the duty of Congress "to test all of the underlying assumptions in Afghanistan and make sure they are the right ones before embarking on a new strategy." Noting that Obama "was correct in calling Iraq an unnecessary war and promising to give priority to Afghanistan," CAP's Lawrence Korb wrote that the President "should not let 'troop needs' in Iraq remain a limiting factor on sending more forces to Afghanistan." Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, a critic of open-ended U.S. military interventions, suggested that "there is an alternative to a global counterinsurgency campaign. Instead of fighting an endless hot war in a vain effort to eliminate the jihadist threat, the United States should wage a cold war to keep the threat at bay," as was done during the struggle against Soviet Communism. Richard Haass, former director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department during the invasion of Afghanistan and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told Germany's Der Spiegel that "we need to be more confident that doing more militarily in Afghanistan will produce more results. It is not clear that will be the case...I believe the president is right to slow down the decision process."