President Barack Obama has wisely ordered an internal review of the administration’s options in Afghanistan before proceeding with the current plan to send 30,000 more troops, which would nearly double the 32,000 fighting there. For the sake of the country, his presidency and the peace and stability of South Asia, Obama should take US-led military escalation off the table. Instead he should focus on devising a regional strategy to stabilize Afghanistan and strengthen Pakistan. Escalating the occupation of Afghanistan would bleed us of the resources we need for economic recovery, further destabilize Pakistan, open a rift with our European allies and negate the positive effects of withdrawing from Iraq on our image in the Muslim world. Escalation would have all these negative consequences without securing a better future for the Afghan people or increasing US security.
There’s no denying that the situation has deteriorated over the past few years; the Taliban now threaten to take over large parts of Afghanistan. But more US forces will not bring stability. We are losing the war not because we have had too few troops but because our presence has turned the Afghan people against us, swelling the ranks of the Taliban.
Any good will the US military once enjoyed has long since been destroyed by airstrikes that have killed civilians. Human Rights Watch reports that at least 321 Afghan civilians died in NATO or US air raids in 2007. According to the UN, many more were killed the following year. Sending more troops will not win back the hearts and minds of their loved ones. The conspicuous corruption of the Karzai government has also taken a toll. The United States is now viewed as propping up an unpopular regime that New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins describes as seeming “to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it,” and “contributing to the collapse of public confidence…and to the resurgence of the Taliban.”
Adding 30,000 troops might be enough to keep the government from falling in the short term, but it will not be nearly enough to wage the kind of counterinsurgency some Obama advisers advocate. For that, some military experts estimate, we may need as many as 600,000. But even a force one-quarter that size would be an immense burden on the US economy, given our debt from the financial crisis. It would almost certainly mean the postponement, if not the end, of Obama’s proposals for universal healthcare and a green economy.
It is doubtful that even a major counterinsurgency could succeed. Indeed, it may only engender more resistance and encourage support for the Taliban in Pakistan to stop what would be seen as the advancement of US and Indian interests. If we learned anything from the British and the Soviets, it is that Afghans fiercely resist outside powers and that some in Pakistan are eager to prevent outsiders from controlling its neighbor, especially if those outsiders have good relations with India. Afghanistan is called “the burial ground of empires” for good reason.