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Putting Out Fire -- With Gasoline?

By Dan Froomkin
2:28 PM ET, 02/18/2009


U.S. soldiers in Kandahar on Sunday. (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan)

Of all the foreign messes President Obama inherited, Afghanistan is the messiest.

Faced with a longstanding demand from top military brass for more troops there, Obama might well have chosen to hold off until he had a better sense of what our mission there should be.

But in his first major military decision yesterday, Obama decided to send up to 17,000 more troops into the fight, doubling the number of American combat brigades in the country.

His decision wasn't entirely a surprise. While he ran as an antiwar candidate when it came to Iraq, he's consistently been quite hawkish when it comes to Afghanistan. "When I am President," he declared on the campaign trail, "we will wage the war that has to be won." He spoke of "getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

In his announcement yesterday, Obama said he was responding to "urgent security needs" and that the "increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires."

But while Obama is undeniably right that the situation in Afghanistan has been neglected and is deteriorating, there's some reason to think that sending more troops there is not the answer -- and may just add fuel to the fire.

A recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for instance, concluded that sending in more troops was exactly what not to do. "The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban," the report said. "The best way to weaken, and perhaps divide, the armed opposition is to reduce military confrontations...

"After seven years of war, the international community has failed to create the conditions for a sustainable Afghan state."

Our best weapon, the report says, would be "a progressive and focused scaling down of combat troops on our own terms. This would neutralize the Taliban's appeals for Jihad against unbelieving foreign invaders, open up space for Afghan institutions and
political solutions, and allow us to focus our efforts on areas where we can still make a difference."

If the troop increase results in more Afghan civilian casualties, it could just make things worse.

Kim Barker writes in the Chicago Tribune: "No issue threatens to undermine the growing U.S. military mission in Afghanistan more than civilian casualties, which have turned more and more Afghans against international troops, created a rift between the U.S. and President Hamid Karzai and delivered Taliban insurgents an easy issue to exploit.

"The number of Afghan civilians killed in armed conflict jumped to a record 2,118 people last year, the UN said in a new report Tuesday. Insurgents killed 55 percent of the victims, but U.S., NATO and Afghan forces killed 39 percent, the report said.

"Of those, 552 were attributed to airstrikes."

Here's that U.N. report, showing a 40 percent increase in civilian casualties between 2007 and 2008.

Another report, from the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, concludes: "The international coalition in Afghanistan is losing public support, one fallen civilian at a time. Twenty billion US dollars in military expenditures each month and billions more in support operations and humanitarian aid still leaves the many civilians harmed by international troops with nothing. Since the initial US invasion in 2001, the lack of a clear, coordinated strategy to address civilian losses has been a leading source of anger and resentment toward military forces. A new BBC/ABC poll shows a 12 percentage point drop in Afghan support for the international presence since 2007 and a drop of 15 points from 2006. A once welcoming picture of the population has turned into scenes of frequent, widespread and sometimes violent protests over civilian deaths and a perceived lack of concern by international forces."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama has ordered the first combat deployments of his presidency, saying yesterday that he had authorized an additional 17,000 U.S. troops 'to stabilize a deteriorating situation' in Afghanistan.

"The new deployments, to begin in May, will increase the U.S. force in Afghanistan by nearly 50 percent, bringing it to 55,000 by mid-summer, along with 32,000 non-U.S. NATO troops. In a statement issued by the White House, Obama said that 'urgent attention and swift action' were required because 'the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda...threatens America from its safe-haven along the Pakistani border.'

"Taliban attacks and U.S. and NATO casualties last year, including 155 U.S. deaths, reached the highest levels of the seven-year war....

"[A] senior White House official said that no other deployment decisions will be made until the Obama administration completes a strategic review of the Afghan war in late March.

"Obama has said he wants to limit U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, and administration officials have spoken of a more 'regional' counterinsurgency strategy, including expanded assistance to Pakistan and diplomatic outreach to India, Iran, Russia and other neighboring countries."

Julian E. Barnes and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times: "Debate has raged for months about the possible effectiveness in Afghanistan of a 'surge,' the term used for the 2007 troop increase in Iraq that has been credited with helping stabilize that country.

"Military officials have been careful not to use that terminology for the current increase in Afghanistan, arguing that additional troops could be needed there for years. But senior Defense officials said that they believe they must quickly demonstrate results, roll back Taliban advances and bring some measure of stability.

"'These troops are going to help us counter Taliban territorial advances, deny safe havens and create security for Afghan civilians,' said a senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly."

Mark Thompson writes for Time: "Afghanistan became President Obama's war on Tuesday."

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Antiwar groups criticized Mr. Obama's decision even before the White House announced it.

"'The president is committing these troops before he's determined what the mission is,' said Tom Andrews, director of the coalition organization Win Without War. 'We need to avoid the slippery slope of military escalation.'"

Jon Cohen blogs for The Washington Post that this was Obama's "first presidential decision without clear majority support.

"Most Americans consider winning in Afghanistan essential to success in the broader war against terrorism, but in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, barely more than a third (34 percent) said the number of U.S. military forces in that country should be increased. About as many would opt for a decrease (29 percent) or no change at all (32 percent)."

So, just how bad are things in Afghanistan?

The Jan. 31 cover of Newsweek called Afghanistan "Obama's Vietnam." John Barry and Evan Thomas wrote that "it seems that the war in Afghanistan is shaping up in all-too-familiar ways. The parallels are disturbing: the president, eager to show his toughness, vows to do what it takes to 'win.' The nation that we are supposedly rescuing is no nation at all but rather a deeply divided, semi-failed state with an incompetent, corrupt government held to be illegitimate by a large portion of its population. The enemy is well accustomed to resisting foreign invaders and can escape into convenient refuges across the border. There are constraints on America striking those sanctuaries. Meanwhile, neighboring countries may see a chance to bog America down in a costly war. Last, there is no easy way out.

"True, there are important differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam. The Taliban is not as powerful or unified a foe as the Viet Cong. On the other hand, Vietnam did not pose a direct national-security threat; even believers in the 'domino theory' did not expect to see the Viet Cong fighting in San Francisco. By contrast, while not Taliban themselves, terrorists who trained in Afghanistan did attack New York and Washington in 2001. Afghanistan has always been seen as the right and necessary war to fight—unlike, for many, Iraq....

"[W]hat is troubling is that no one in the outgoing or incoming administration has been able to say what the additional troops are for, except as a kind of tourniquet to staunch the bleeding while someone comes up with a strategy that has a chance of working. The most uncomfortable question is whether any strategy will work at this point."

Lara Jakes wrote for the Associated Press a few days after the Newsweek cover: "The top U.S. military officer cautioned Monday against comparing the Pentagon's renewed focus on Afghanistan to the Vietnam War, citing terrorism and a non-occupation strategy as 'dramatic differences' between the two conflicts.

"'Afghanistan is much more complex,' said Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

William Dalrymple wrote in the New York Review of Books last month about "the catastrophe that is rapidly overwhelming Western interests in the part of the world that always should have been the focus of America's response to September 11: the al-Qaeda and Taliban heartlands on either side of the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"The situation here could hardly be more grim....

"Eight years of neocon foreign policies have been a spectacular disaster for American interests in the Islamic world, leading to the rise of Iran as a major regional power, the advance of Hamas and Hezbollah, the wreckage of Iraq, with over two million external refugees and the ethnic cleansing of its Christian population, and now the implosion of Afghanistan and Pakistan, probably the most dangerous development of all."

The neocons, not surprisingly, still see a military solution.

Frederick W. Kagan writes in Newsweek: "As in Iraq since 2006, the search is on for a middle-way strategy in Afghanistan that will achieve our minimal national-security requirements without forcing us to defeat a determined set of enemies and create a modern state. Unfortunately, as in Iraq, there is no such strategy."

By contrast, he writes: "There is considerable evidence, however, that effective counterinsurgency operations can render large areas extremely inhospitable to terrorist networks, destroying some and forcing others to leave. That was the result of the surge strategy implemented in Iraq in 2007 and 2008."

Meanwhile, a more balanced plan appears to be emerging from the White House.

Obama, who is headed to Ottawa tomorrow, sat down with Peter Mansbridge of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Tuesday. (Here's the video.)

"I am absolutely convinced that you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism in that region solely through military means. We're going to have to use diplomacy, we're going to have to use development," Obama said.

But when Mansbridge asked "Is Afghanistan still one winnable?" Obama replied: "Well, I think Afghanistan is still winnable, in the sense of our ability to ensure that it is not a launching pad for attacks against North America. I think it's still possible for us to stamp out al Qaeda to make sure that extremism is not expanding but rather is contracting. I think all those goals are still possible, but I think that as a consequence to the war on Iraq, we took our eye off the ball. We have not been as focused as we need to be on all the various steps that are needed in order to deal with Afghanistan.

"If you've got narco-trafficking that is funding the Taliban, if there is a perception that there's no rule of law in Afghanistan, if we don't solve the issue of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, then we're probably not going to solve the problem."

Ian Traynor Munich wrote in the Guardian that outlines of a new Afghanistan strategy were apparent at a security conference in Munich earlier this month. The strategy involves "scaling back the ambitions of George Bush in a shift which senior officials and diplomats described as a 'new realism'"

Craig Whitlock wrote from Munich: "President Obama's national security team gave a dire assessment Sunday of the war in Afghanistan, with one official calling it a challenge 'much tougher than Iraq' and others hinting that it could take years to turn around."

Indeed, Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube reported for NBC about Obama's meeting in late January with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "[I]n the Pentagon's 'tank,' the president specifically asked, 'What is the end game?' in the U.S. military's strategy for Afghanistan. When asked what the answer was, one military official told NBC News, 'Frankly, we don't have one.' But they're working on it."

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