Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Afghan Quagmire

Even before getting into office, Obama is getting flak, advice, admonishment and grief from every quarter. I respect Bob Herbert a great deal, so this column of his makes me think. A lot. AMong the first things I think are: well, if the US leaves Afghanistan in order not to destabilize Pakistan, then what becomes of Afghanistan?

Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who is now a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, wrote an important piece for Newsweek warning against the proposed buildup. “Afghanistan will be a sinkhole,” he said, “consuming resources neither the U.S. military nor the U.S. government can afford to waste.”

Yet, if the US leaves Afghanistan, who takes over, who fills the vacuum? Both the US and USSR abandoned the country, and in the 1990s the Taliban moved in, and no tonly made the country a laboratory for extreme Islamism, but also made it a haven for AL Qaeda and its ilk.

The time to go all out in Afghanistan was in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks. That time has passed.

So, what now? Who handles it?

What’s the upside to the U.S., a nation in dire economic distress, of an escalation in Afghanistan? If we send 20,000, or 30,000, or however many thousand more troops in there, what will their mission be?

Well, to stabilize a key nation in a strategically important region, for one. To not allow Taliban and other forces to take over the nation, unchecked. Seem a couple of good reasons.

In his article for Newsweek, Mr. Bacevich said: “The chief effect of military operations in Afghanistan so far has been to push radical Islamists across the Pakistani border. As a result, efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are contributing to the destabilization of Pakistan, with potentially devastating implications.

“No country poses a greater potential threat to U.S. national security — today and for the foreseeable future — than Pakistan. To risk the stability of that nuclear-armed state in the vain hope of salvaging Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake.”

Agreed. But what is the alternative? To forsake Afghanistan is not to de facto stabilize Pakistan. Can not the two aims be satisfied concurrently, to both stabilize Afghanistan and not destabilize, nay, to even stabilize, Pakistan?

Our interest in Afghanistan is to prevent it from becoming a haven for terrorists bent on attacking us. That does not require the scale of military operations that the incoming administration is contemplating. It does not require a wholesale occupation. It does not require the endless funneling of human treasure and countless billions of taxpayer dollars to the Afghan government at the expense of rebuilding the United States, which is falling apart before our very eyes.

The forces now in Afghanistan are insufficient to make the US mission work. Thus, the US either has to double up, or get out. The numbers being discussed are not what would be a wholesale occupation.

If Mr. Obama does send more troops to Afghanistan, he should go on television and tell the American people, in the clearest possible language, what he is trying to achieve. He should spell out the mission’s goals, and lay out an exit strategy.

He will owe that to the public because he will own the conflict at that point. It will be Barack Obama’s war.

So, there.

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