When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
—Rudyard Kipling, “The Young British Soldier,” 1892
January 25, 2009, Washington, DC — Can President Obama succeed in that long-lamented “graveyard of empires” — a place that has crushed foreign occupiers for more than 2,000 years?
Ever since the Bush administration diverted its attention — and resources — to the war in Iraq from the war in Afghanistan, military planners and foreign policy experts have bemoaned the dearth of troops to keep that country from sliding back into Taliban control. And in that time, the insurgency blossomed, as Taliban militants took advantage of huge swaths of territory, particularly in the south, that NATO troops weren’t able to fill.
Enter Mr. Obama. During the campaign he promised to send two additional brigades — 7,000 troops — to Afghanistan. During the transition, military planners started talking about adding as many as 30,000 troops. And within days of taking office, Mr. Obama announced the appointment of Richard Holbrooke, architect of the Balkan peace accords, to execute a new Afghanistan policy.
But even as Mr. Obama’s military planners prepare for the first wave of the new Afghanistan “surge,” there is growing debate, including among those who agree with the plan to send more troops, about whether — or how — the troops can accomplish their mission, and just what the mission is.
Afghanistan has, after all, stymied would-be conquerors since Alexander the Great. It’s always the same story; the invaders — British, Soviets — control the cities, but not the countryside. And eventually, the invaders don’t even control the cities, and are sent packing.
Think Iraq was hard? Afghanistan, former Secretary of State Colin Powell argues, will be “much, much harder.”
“Iraq had a middle class,” Mr. Powell pointed out on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” a couple of hours before Mr. Obama was sworn in last Tuesday. “It was a fairly advanced country before Saddam Hussein drove it in the ground.” Afghanistan, on the other hand, “is still basically a tribal society, a lot of corruption; drugs are going to destroy that country if something isn’t done about it.”
For Mr. Obama, Afghanistan is the signal foreign policy crisis that he must address quickly. Some 34,000 American troops are already fighting an insurgency that grows stronger by the month, making this a dynamically deteriorating situation in a region fraught with consequence for American security aims. Coupled with nuclear-armed Pakistan, with which it shares a border zone that has become a haven for Al Qaeda, Afghanistan could quickly come to define the Obama presidency.
Mr. Obama’s extra troops will largely be battling a Taliban insurgency fed by an opium trade estimated at $300 million a year. And that insurgency is dispersed among a largely rural population living in villages scattered across 78,000 square miles of southern Afghanistan.
One question for Mr. Obama is whether 30,000 more troops are enough. “I think that this is more of a psychological surge than a practical surge,” said Karin von Hippel, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said she favored the troop increase, but only as a precursor to getting the Europeans to contribute more, and to changing America’s policy so it focuses more on the countryside, as opposed to the capital.
“In Afghanistan, the number of troops, if you combine NATO, American and Afghan troops, is 200,000 forces versus 600,000 in Iraq,” Ms. von Hippel said. “Those numbers are so low that an extra 30,000 isn’t going to get you to where you need to be. It’s more of a stop-gap measure.”
“But something,” she said, “is better than nothing.”
That last assertion, however, is also open to debate. Some foreign policy experts argue that Mr. Obama’s decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan is simply an extension of Bush administration policy in the region, with the difference being that Mr. Obama could be putting more American lives at risk to pursue a failed policy.
While more American troops can help to stabilize southern Afghanistan, that argument goes, they cannot turn the situation around in the country unless there are major changes in overall policy. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, the darling of the Bush administration, has begun to lose his luster; American and European officials now express private frustration over his refusal to arrest drug lords who have been running the opium trade.
Mr. Karzai has also been widely criticized for not cracking down enough on corruption. And diplomats say his distaste for venturing far beyond his fortified presidential palace in Kabul reinforces the divide between Afghanistan’s central government and its largely rural population, giving the Taliban free rein in the countryside.
Before sending in more American troops, argues Andrew Bacevich, an international relations professor at Boston University, Mr. Obama should figure out if he is going to change an underlying American policy that has shrunk from putting pressure on Mr. Karzai.
“It seems there’s a rush to send in more reinforcements absent the careful analysis that’s most needed here,” said Mr. Bacevich, author of “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.”
“There’s clearly a consensus that things are heading in the wrong direction,” Mr. Bacevich said. “What’s not clear to me is why sending 30,000 more troops is the essential step to changing that. My understanding of the larger objective of the allied enterprise in Afghanistan is to bring into existence something that looks like a modern cohesive Afghan state. Well, it could be that that’s an unrealistic objective. It could be that sending 30,000 more troops is throwing money and lives down a rat hole.”
Putting aside the question of whether a modern cohesive Afghan state is a realistic objective, United States policy makers would like, at the very least, to get to a point in Afghanistan where the country is no longer a launching pad for terrorist attacks like what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. Beating back the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, and rooting out Qaeda training camps on the Pakistani border in eastern Afghanistan with the goal of finding Osama bin Laden, are all central parts of American policy, even absent a modern cohesive Afghan state.
Can 30,000 more troops help with that objective?
J. Alexander Their, an Afghanistan expert at the United States Institute of Peace, argues that additional troops can form a basis for stability, but that their presence will be for naught unless there is also government reform. “The Afghan population, particularly in the rural areas, have a strong degree of ambivalence toward the government,” he said. “People expect very little from government, or expect bad things. Yet we’ve ignored government reform and rule of law as part of our strategy.”
The appointment of Mr. Holbrooke as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan may signal the direction that the Obama administration will take there. In the past, Mr. Holbrooke has written — as he did in a column in The Washington Post last spring — that in Afghanistan, “massive, officially sanctioned corruption and the drug trade are the most serious problems the country faces, and they offer the Taliban its only exploitable opportunity to gain support.”
And during her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Afghanistan a “narco-state” with a government “plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption.” So an Obama administration may, indeed, look for ways to press Mr. Karzai to crack down on corruption and drug trafficking.
But Mr. Their, of the peace institute, says that for a troop increase to produce anything but the limited securing of a few areas, Mr. Obama and NATO may have to go further. “There has to be increasing recognition that what is most important is some form of accountable government,” he said. “If they’re willing to contemplate a world without Karzai, they’ll be more open to a fair process and more open to the idea that there may be others out there.”