President Obama's escalation in Afghanistan: unrealistic and costly
We have known for some time that President Obama was likely to escalate the war in Afghanistan, with rampant speculation about the details. While there were not many surprises in his general justification for sending an additional 30,000 troops, the speech was long on the eloquence we expect from President Obama and short on substance. President Obama failed to lay out a comprehensive strategy, a vision for success and a clear explanation for how an increase in troops will get us to a clearly defined end point. Some of the key problems in President Obama’s proposed plan:
30,000 troops will not address the threat from Al Qaeda. Throughout the speech, the main justification President Obama offered for his decision to send additional troops was the threat from Al Qaeda, and he fell back on some typical fear mongering rhetoric to make what amounted to a weak case. President Obama’s own staff acknowledge that there are approximately 100 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Do we need 1,000 American troops for each terrorist to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” Al Qaeda? Obama relied heavily on the idea of preventing a safe haven for Al Qaeda, a myth that has been debunked by many experts, including former deputy chief of the CIA counterterrorist center Paul Pillar, who noted in The Washington Post that “In the past couple of decades, international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens.” We are dealing with 21st century threats by non-state actors, and we can’t continue to rely on 20th century solutions.
History has proven that military force is highly ineffective when it comes to dealing with terrorist groups. The RAND Corporation reviewed all terrorist groups that ended in the last 40 years, and determined that only 7% were defeated by military force. Policing and intelligence and political reconciliation were far more useful, and they extrapolate from this information that the US should have a light military footprint in Afghanistan if any.
Escalation will backfire. Not only is sending additional troops unlikely to improve the situation on the ground, it could easily exacerbate the situation. Afghanistan expert Gilles Dorronsoro noted that the presence of foreign troops is the top factor in the resurgence of the Taliban, and recommended that “the best way to weaken, and perhaps divide, the armed opposition is to reduce military confrontations.” Rather than reducing the moment of the Taliban, the stated goal of President Obama’s policy, escalation will light a fire under a growing insurgency.
President Obama is correct in noting that the Taliban is not popular with the Afghan people, but the United States’ popularity is on the wane. In a poll in early 2009, just 18% of Afghans said the number of foreign forces should be increased. US intelligence reports this year noted that only about 10% of the insurgency is ideologically motivated Taliban; the majority are people fighting to repel foreign invaders or for economic gain. The US is adding fuel to the fire by aggressively pursuing insurgents who have no international agenda with an escalation of troops.
The date to begin withdrawal is a step in the right direction, but not far enough. I was pleasantly surprised that President Obama offered a specific date to begin withdrawal of US troops. However, there is a lot of wiggle room. The key phrase, one that we are too familiar with from the Bush years, is “conditions on the ground.” There was no indication of the vision of what Afghanistan would need to look like in order for the US to begin withdrawing troops. With that loose criteria, it is far too easy to delay a withdrawal based on the circumstances that are sure to be less than ideal. There was also no mention of the pace of withdrawal; a start date is only one small piece of the puzzle.
The bottom line is that this is a 50 percent increase in the number of troops on the ground. This increased commitment is sinking the US deeper into Afghanistan and making it even harder to extricate ourselves, even with the conditional date to begin withdrawal.
The civilian approach is being neglected. President Obama paid lip service to a civilian surge in Afghanistan, but there was little detail in what that will look like and what percentage of resources will be focused there. Counterinsurgency experts have argued that the ratio should include 80 percent political and 20 percent military. Thus far, we have seen approximately 90 percent of the resources focused on the military. Of the nonmilitary assistance, 56 percent of it has been funneled through the Department of Defense. We have not yet had an accounting of how many millions have been wasted through irresponsible contracting rather than investment in effective programs like the National Solidarity Program.
In a recent poll by Oxfam, seven out of ten Afghans said poverty and unemployment are to blame for war and conflict, the top choice coming out ahead of corruption and ineffectiveness of the government and the Taliban. If the US seriously wants to stabilize Afghanistan and build an “enduring partnership” with the Afghan people, our commitment to development needs to extend beyond rhetoric.
It’s unrealistic to base a strategy on a partnership with a reliable, non-corrupt Afghan government. President Obama acknowledged that the Afghan election was marred by fraud, but settled for the idea that Karzai’s presidency conforms to the laws of Afghanistan (other than whatever ones he might have broken in the course of electoral fraud?). General McChrystal’s leaked report contended that the strategy was contingent upon being seen as a guest of the Afghan government and its people. If the US plans to only work with agencies that effectively combat corruption, they might as well pack up and go home now. The election was widely considered a joke inside and outside of Afghanistan.
No one in the administration has laid out a clear plan for combating corruption in Afghanistan and building buy-in with the current government. Can we really send more soldiers to die and spend more tax dollars on behalf of an illegitimate and incompetent regime?
An escalation will be far too costly in money and lives without a real path to success. President Obama noted that the escalation in Afghanistan is slated to cost $30 billion dollars per year, on top of more than $200 billion that has already been spent. This occurs in the midst of the worst financial crisis we have seen in years, and a battle to get Congress to shell out money to insure millions of Americans who don’t have access to health care. Cost estimates tend to be left in the dust by reality, and President Obama is likely to renege on his pledge to avoid funding the war through supplementals that lack the accountability of the regular budget process. Some members of Congress have attempted to address this through proposing a surtax to fund the war, but you don’t achieve fiscal responsibility by raising taxes to pay for an irresponsible foreign policy.
Addressing cadets at West Point, Obama acknowledged the burden that the war in Afghanistan put on them, but despite that he is willing to risk their lives for a strategy that I can’t believe he truly thinks will work. Since his initial “surge” earlier this year, 2009 has become the deadliest year of the war for US troops, with a month still to go. As Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) pointed out in a recent piece, 1,000 US troops have been wounded in the last 3 months, one quarter of US casualties in the Afghanistan war: “Think about it. The war has been going on for 97 months in Afghanistan, and one-fourth of all the casualties have been suffered in just the past three months.” The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked President Obama to only send troops to Afghanistan that had had one year of leave between deployments because of the record-high suicide rate in the active duty military.
The UN also reported a rise in civilian casualties in 2009 compared to the previous year. Thousands of Afghans have been plunged further into poverty and despair because of the effects of occupation, and Pakistanis face increased danger since President Obama has ramped up the drone strikes in the Pakistani border region. These costs will only rise with the addition of troops, and the Obama administration has not offered a sufficient justification for these costs.
There are alternatives that were not a part of the review process. Like many people, I was glad to see President Obama take his time on the Afghanistan decision and entertain a variety of approaches. However, there was nothing in any reports on the process that indicated the administration considered any plans to put nonmilitary tools at the forefront and fully vetted them. In his speech, Obama engaged in a straw man argument, characterizing people who oppose the war as parroting the sound bite that Afghanistan equals Vietnam and thus we must pull out immediately. There are ample, well-considered alternatives that are based on a realistic assessment on the ground and a more efficient investment of our tax dollars. The Congressional Progressive Caucus outlined elements of a new plan in their recent letter to Obama. In our policy agenda Strategic Cooperation, we laid out key aspects of an alternative approach including policing and intelligence; regional diplomacy, internal political reconciliation; and effective Afghan-led development.
After eight years of failure, it’s clear we need a new approach in Afghanistan. The Obama administration owes the American people a comprehensive plan that takes into account the realities on the ground and the limitations of military force.
It is easy to feel disheartened at this point, especially for those of us who have been actively opposing the war or who helped get Barack Obama elected with the hope that he would chart a new course in our foreign policy. Despite this setback, I feel we have reasons to believe we are having an impact and there is momentum behind us. The mere fact that President Obama mentioned an exit strategy and defended the idea from critics is a testament to the power of the political pressure we have exerted on the administration and Congress. We have put our government on notice, and we need to keep fighting. The voices of dissent in Congress are getting louder, largely because of pressure from their constituents, and the opposition has spread far beyond the usual suspects.
I am humbled and inspired by the commitment of activists around this country who are steadfastly working to build a brighter future and promote a new vision for our foreign policy. We have to show that we will not go away; now we must redouble our efforts. Please take a moment to call your representative today at 1-800-427-8619 and urge him or her to speak out forcefully for a new approach.