Raising The Stakes In Afghanistan
Speaking last night at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, President Obama announced the new U.S. strategy for the war in Afghanistan. "As Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan," the President said, bringing the total U.S. commitment to 100,000. "After 18 months," he continued, "our troops will begin to come home." Obama used part of his speech to remind Americans why we had gone into Afghanistan in the first place. "On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 men hijacked four airplanes and used them to murder nearly 3,000 people...as we know, these men belonged to al-Qaida," who were then based in Afghanistan and given shelter by the country's Taliban government. After initial success in Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S.-led international effort seriously deteriorated, with al Qaeda having found shelter in neighboring Pakistan, and their Taliban allies using the illegal narcotics trade to fund an increasingly effective insurgency back in Afghanistan. While the President acknowledged that "there is no imminent threat of the government being overthrown," he said "the Taliban has gained momentum. ... The status quo is not sustainable."
WHY WE'RE STILL THERE: After quickly toppling Afghanistan's Taliban government in 2001, President Bush promised significant reconstruction aid to the country, but the aid never materialized at the promised levels. A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report faulted the Bush administration for failing to capture or kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden when he was cornered at Tora Bora, near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in December 2001. U.S. military resources and attention soon turned to the planned invasion of Iraq, which Bush administration officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld felt would serve as a more effective demonstration of American military power. In September, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. had "very badly under-resourced Afghanistan for the better part of five years." An international aid worker told the New York Times that "the tragedy" is that "the $70 billion that would have given you enough police and army to stabilize [Afghanistan] all went to Iraq."
GREATER COMMITMENTS ALL AROUND: Though many have compared the Afghanistan escalation to the Iraq surge, there is an important difference: The troop surge that took place in Iraq in 2007 was a "one-time deployment of additional troops," after which those troops return home and troop levels decrease. What Obama announced last night is a sustained escalation, in which troops will be replaced after they complete their tours in order to maintain troop numbers at the new, higher level. The President also stressed that he had "asked that our commitment be joined by contributions from our allies," noting that "some have already provided additional troops, and we are confident that there will be further contributions in the days and weeks ahead." According to Center for American Progress national security analyst Caroline Wadhams, securing a greater international commitment to Afghanistan is important. "We should not be asked to bear the burden alone especially in the midst of our own economic crisis," Wadhams said, adding, "Security interests in Afghanistan don't just affect us but threaten the globe." Speaking of the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, Obama said that it must work to battle corruption and take advantage of the greater security provided by the new U.S. strategy. "This effort must be based on performance," Obama said. "The days of providing a blank check are over."
A HORIZON FOR WITHDRAWAL: Obama said that he would like to turn over security responsibility to the Afghans themselves and begin bringing U.S. forces home by the middle of 2011. According to administration officials, Obama is calculating "that the explicit promise of a drawdown will impress upon the Afghan government that his commitment is not open-ended." Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) quickly sent out a press release attacking the President's timeline. "A withdrawal date only emboldens Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partner," he declared. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said that setting a drawdown date "is a mistake, and it sends a mixed message to both our friends and our enemies regarding our long-term commitment to success." But CAP national security experts argue that such a timeline is necessary. CAP senior fellow Lawrence Korb said "You can make it flexible but you need to have goals. ... If we do not do that, we're going to be seen like the British and the Soviets as occupiers." In his speech, the President took care to distinguish the U.S. effort in Afghanistan from past interventions there. "[U]nlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination," the President said. "Our union was founded in resista nce to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations."