As he campaigned for the presidency, Sen. Barack Obama argued
that Afghanistan should become "the central front in the battle against
terrorism." Obama has delivered on that issue. U.S. troop levels have more
than doubled since the beginning of a troop buildup first begun under
President George W. Bush.
The price for that promise is not cheap.
For the moment, more troops mean more combat. As Institute for
the Study of War President Kimberly Kagan noted at a Brookings Institute
event last month, "As those new troops come in, as we have seen, violence
will go up. They did so in Iraq. They will do so in Afghanistan because we
are going into areas that the enemy effectively has controlled. So we
mustn't conflate or confuse a rise in violence with success or failure."
But others see the rise in casualties 47 U.S. troops were
killed in combat in August, the deadliest month since the beginning of the
war eight years ago and charges of ballot fraud during the August
presidential and provincial council elections as signs of failure.
At a White House press conference Monday, CBS News' Chip Reid
asked White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, "Is it possible that you're
simply losing control in Afghanistan and it's going to continue to spiral
out of control?"
Also last week, Washington Post conservative columnist George F.
Will cited the rise in U.S. troop casualties and unquestioned corruption in
President Hamid Karzai's government, then called for Obama to reverse course
in Afghanistan. Will wrote, U.S. "forces should be substantially reduced to
serve a comprehensive revised policy: America should do only what can be
done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air
strikes, and small, potent special forces units, concentrating on the porous
1,500mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters."
The very notion of recommitting the NATO strategy in Afghanistan
to unmanned drones goes against the philosophy of the top NATO commander,
U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whose strategy calls for winning Afghan
hearts and minds, in part by reducing collateral deaths from air strikes. As
the Washington Post's David Ignatius reported, McChrystal's classified
report to the president on Afghanistan includes the headline: "Protecting
the people is the mission. The conflict will be won by persuading the
population, not by destroying the enemy."
McChrystal also is working to professionalize Afghanistan's
inadequate military and police forces much as Gen. David Petraeus worked
to beef up Iraq's national security forces.
On the left, the pressure to withdraw U.S. troops from
Afghanistan is even greater. At a Chronicle editorial board meeting
Wednesday, Rep. Jackie Speier, DHillsborough, complained about the cost of
the war and the lack of an exit strategy. "To me," Speier added, "Pakistan
is almost a greater threat."
Fariba Nawa, a freelance journalist based in the Bay Area and
dual citizen of Afghanistan and the United States, said that the Will/Speier
emphasis on Pakistan is "offensive to me let's go to Pakistan, a country
that really matters." They don't get it, she added, "Pakistan and
Afghanistan are connected."
"My gut feeling as an Afghan is that if the U.S. troops leave
again," Nawa told me, then civil war will return, women will lose precious
freedoms, aid workers will be killed and Afghanistan will return to its
Or as Brookings Institute senior fellow Bruce Riedel argued, "We
abandoned Afghanistan twice before. We know what happens. The first time we
got Sept. 11 and the al-Qaida base in Afghanistan. The second time, we got
the mess we're in here."
If U.S. troops leave, Riedel opined, "The triumph of jihadism or
the jihadism of al-Qaida and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan
would resonate through the Islamic World."
Nawa cites Afghan support for the NATO mission. She sees more
people in school, relatives working at good jobs and women making advances
in cities. "If we leave," she cautioned, "then you're going to have all that
progress gone to waste."
Nawa has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. At a Commonwealth Club
event in March, Nawa noted that unlike in Iraq, most Afghans supported U.S.
intervention from day one. "They don't consider the U.S. being there an
occupation," she said.
And: "They want the U.S. to stay and to help them build their
country." Think of the damage to America's reputation were the Will view to
prevail. A precipitous pullout would cement this country's reputation as an
unreliable ally that helicopters into countries with money and promises,
then rotates out when the body count rises, leaving behind those who have
risked their families by helping our mission.
If Washington were to bolt now, then what country in the world
would have reason to trust us?
As unpleasant as the situation in Afghanistan is, this is no
time to go squishy.