At a time when the continuing economic crisis is creating ever more hardship for the vast majority of Americans and placing ever greater demands on the federal budget, we need clearheaded leadership that is able to strip away myth and dogma and define afresh our most pressing problems and the right strategy for dealing with them. Sadly, in announcing his administration’s decision to send 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan on top of the 68,000 already there, President Obama has fallen short of this test of leadership.
Not only did the president and his national security team reject far less costly options that would have allowed us to disengage militarily from the conflict in a responsible way; they have decided on a strategy that is so full of muddled thinking and so wasteful of lives and resources that it must be opposed as contrary to the best interests of the American people. And his vow to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011 seems not so much part of a carefully considered stabilization strategy for Afghanistan as a way to placate growing Congressional and popular opposition to a war entering its ninth year.
As Obama argued in his West Point speech, the principal purpose of our involvement is “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.” But he failed to explain why that goal requires 100,000 troops at a cost of nearly $100 billion. By the military’s own calculation, there are at most 100 Al Qaeda operatives, mostly low-level, in Afghanistan, the leadership having fled to Pakistan years ago.
In making this war the key to America’s national security strategy against terrorism, Obama has chosen to perpetuate some damaging myths. The first of these is the notion that the greatest danger to American security is a terrorist attack from Afghanistan. This ignores the fact that 9/11 was not launched from Afghanistan and that Al Qaeda can operate relatively freely not only in parts of Pakistan but in Somalia, Yemen and other countries. The best way to keep Americans safe from terrorism is through effective intelligence, expert police work and judicious homeland defense. These practical measures cost far less than war and occupation in Muslim lands, which arouse hatred of the United States–and give strength to Islamist extremists.
The president nonetheless suggested that there is a larger US interest in stabilizing Afghanistan. But if that is so, he did not explain how a strategy that has so far failed will be successful in the future. He seems to be buying into the counterinsurgency myth: namely, that by deploying more forces to protect the Afghan population in urban centers, by laying down more benchmarks for the government, by mixing in more economic assistance and by training more army and police, we can transform Afghanistan into a coherent nation-state with a functioning government.
The undeniable fact is that eight years of US occupation and war have led to a growing insurgency, fueled by anger at one of the world’s most corrupt governments, run mostly by former and not-so-former warlords who were installed by the United States after 9/11. Many of these warlords are deeply involved in the opium trade, among them the brother of Hamid Karzai, the president, who was re-elected only through massive fraud. Obama was not very convincing when he acknowledged this fraud even as he declared that the resulting government was consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and Constitution. And he did not inspire confidence that we will improve our ability to train the Afghan army and police, given current desertion rates.