President-elect Barack Obama not only had the good judgment to opposethe war in Iraq, he argued for the need “to end the mindset that took usinto” that war. So it’s troubling that he ramped up his rhetoric duringthe campaign about exiting Iraq in order to focus on what he calls the”central front in the war on terror”–Afghanistan. His plan now callsfor an escalation of 20,000 to 30,000 additionalAmerican troops overthe next year–nearly doubling the current 32,000.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman criticized the Dems’ position on Afghanistan as ill-conceived”bumper sticker politics.” Too many of the leading Dems have become partof a poorlyreasoned bipartisan consensus that threatens to entrap the US in anothercostly occupation–a war that New York Times columnist BobHerbertdescribesas “more than seven years old and which long ago turned into aquagmire.” It currently costs the Pentagon $2 billion per month to support the US troops in Afghanistan. Anescalation would drain resources that are vital to President-electObama’s goals for aneconomic recovery, health care, and social justice at home, whileimpeding other critical international initiatives such as the MiddleEast Peace process and a regional diplomacy in South Asia.

Once again, as in the run-up to the War in Iraq, too few people inCongress and the mainstream media are asking tough questions. There aresome notable exceptions–see Friedman and Herbert–and in Congress,there’s Senator Russ Feingold who writes in a recent op-ed:

Few people seem willing to ask whether the main solutionthat’sbeing talked about- sending more troops to Afghanistan–will actuallywork. If the devastating policies of the current administration haveproved anything, it’s that we need to ask tough questions beforedeploying our brave service members–and that we need to be suspiciousof Washington ‘group think.’ Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up forfailure.

There are strategic reasons to oppose a military escalation andoccupation. On national security grounds, a US occupation would becounterproductive to the stated goal of defeating Al Qaeda. The momentfor action against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was immediately after 9/11. Now, Al Qaeda operates out of Pakistan, and the key to reining it inlies with a democratic Pakistani government. Andrew Bacevich, a retiredArmy colonel and a professor of history and international relations atBoston University, wrote aboutthe “sinkhole” of Afghanistan inNewsweek:

The chief effect of military operations in Afghanistan sofar has been to push radical Islamists across the Pakistani border. As a result,efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are contributing to the destabilizationof Pakistan, with potentially devastating implications…. To risk thestability of that nuclear-armed state in the vain hope of salvagingAfghanistan would be a terrible mistake.”

US occupation is also exacerbating tensions in South Asia where theKashmir conflict and Mumbai attacks have nuclear-armed Pakistan andIndia at “each others’ throats.”

At a moment when US diplomatic leadership is needed to pursue peace, andcooperation is required to take on Al Qaeda, major groups withinPakistan’s military and intelligence services are now providing supportto Islamic extremists with the aim of thwarting US policy. The US isviewed as propping up an unpopular and corrupt Karzai government that New York Timesreporter Dexter Filkins describes as “seem[ing] to exist for little morethan the enrichment of those who run it,” and “contributing to thecollapse of public confidence… andto the resurgence of the Taliban.” The Karzai government also aids andabets a flourishing narcotics trade. All of these factors fuelanti-American/anti-government sentiment in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But perhaps nothing causes rage towards the US more than mountingcivilian casualties.

According to a reportfrom Human Rights Watch documenting airstrikes and civilian deaths, themajority of deaths caused by international troops come from airstrikes.Using statisticsprovided by the US Central Command Air Forces, the report noted that USaircraft have dropped about as many tons of bombs in June and July thisyear as during all of 2006. At least 321 civilians were killed in NATOor US aerial raids this year–triple the number in 2006. A UN reportnow estimates that up to 500 Afghancivilians are dying monthly from US cluster bombs, most of themchildren and teenage boys. Finally, a UN study shows that civiliandeaths have not only increased Afghanresentment of foreign forces but also motivated many of the suicidebombings. As an Afghan vegetable stand owner told the Washington Post, “I neverheard of a suicide bomber in Afghanistan until the Americansand this government came.”

The other often cited national security objective–ensuring thatAfghanistan doesn’t become a haven for terrorists–doesn’t call forthis kind of escalation. First, it doesn’t make sense to fight anunwinnable war to prevent Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan if they canoperate relatively freely in Pakistan. Also, it would be difficult tofind a less attractive place strategically than Afghanistan from whichto direct an international terrorist network or threaten US interests orglobal commerce.

What is required in order to pursue peace in the region is betterdelivery of targeted aid and reconstruction that improves the dailylives of the Afghanistan people. In a recent statement, theinternational relief and development organization Oxfam Americaurged a change of focus: “Unless the next American President…builds onthe existing commitments to help lift the Afghan people out of extremepoverty and protect civilians, it will be impossible for the country toachieve lasting peace.” Many argue that only increased presence of UStroops will create the security needed for delivery of aid, but theKarzai government is too corrupt and too weak outside of Kabul to ensurethat the aid goes to the people who need it. A negotiated settlementwith elements of the Taliban would create far greater stability than wecould ever hope to achieve through an escalation, arming militias, and doling out Viagra to triballeaders–as the Washington Post reported last month is thepractice of US intelligence officials.

Some raise human rights concerns about the consequence of a US/NATOdeparture. In particular, some groups feel that US troops are needed toprotect Afghan girls and women. But many Afghan women activists andorganizations — like former Afghan parliament member Malalai Joya andthe Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)–have called for awithdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Here’s how Joya put it: “Over 85 percent of Afghans are living below the poverty lineand don’thave enough to eat. While the US military spends $65,000 a minute inAfghanistan for its operations, up to 18 million people (out of apopulation of only 26 million) live on less than $2 US a day, accordingto the Food and Agriculture Organization…. As soon as possible, theUS/NATO troops must vacate our country. We want liberation, notoccupation. With the withdrawal of occupation forces, we will only haveto face one enemy instead of two.” We currently spend $36 billionannually on military operations in Afghanistan which would climb withescalation. We’ve spent $11 billion since 2002 on non-militarydevelopment. Withdrawal of troops doesn’t end US aid–it allowsresources to be spent more wisely, focusing on creating opportunitiesand rights for women, and alternatives to the narcotics trade for poorfarmers. As Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of Afghan Women’s Missionsaid, “For this, orany other idea to work, the US occupation must end.That’s the first big step to recovery.”

While President-elect Obama has the possibility of re-engaging with aworld repulsed by the destructive polices of the Bush Administration, itis likely that escalating the war in Afghanistan will endanger thatpossibility. Escalation may cause a rift with European allies whosepeople have turned against this war, and our ability to extricateourselves from the quagmire will only get harder. Consider the warningof former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski: “We arerunning the risk of repeating the mistake the Soviet Union made….Our strategy is getting in deeper and deeper.” Russian militaryofficers caution that Afghans cannot be conquered, as the Sovietsattempted to do in the 1980s with nearly twice as many troops as NATOand the US currently have in the country and with three times the numberof Afghan troops that Karzai can deploy.

The best prospect for more concerted action against Al-Qaeda is aplanned withdrawal of US forces, and for reconstruction to be taken overby a multinational coalition that has as few American fingerprints aspossible. The fact that this is an American project is the principalreason why Pakistani groups support the Islamic insurgents. To be fair,President-elect Obama has spoken on the importance development aid andresolving the opium trade; but military escalation remains thecenterpiece of his plan. The point of withdrawal is not to abandonAfghanistan, but to take a different approach to targeted aid, smartdiplomacy, and intelligence cooperation. A regional solution will betough–one that involves Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, China, Russia,and Iran (who opposes the Taliban and also has its own fight with Afghan drug warlords on its border), as will anegotiated settlement between the Karzai government and the Taliban. But these should be the priorities of the Obama Administration, ratherthan sending more young men and women to die in the mountains anddeserts of Afghanistan and making thisPresident Obama’s War.

I will be blogging regularly on this issue as part of a campaign to stopthe escalation. You can find others doing the same–and opportunitiesfor action–at the soon to be up and running website,getafghanistanright.com.