Sinking deeper in Afghanistan

September 9, 2009

The U.S. is making an ever-greater commitment to a war that is less and less popular, either here or in Afghanistan.

FACING THE possibility of military defeat, the generals call for a massive troop escalation to turn the tide on the battlefield--and a Democratic president heeds their demands, presiding over a dramatic increase in U.S. money and manpower devoted to the conflict.

That's a summary of how the U.S. sank itself deeper into the Vietnam War in the 1960s--and now, how the Obama administration is committing itself to the U.S. war on Afghanistan.

So the question is: Will Afghanistan become Obama's Vietnam? Will the war derail Obama's domestic political agenda, as it did Lyndon B. Johnson's, and deal a military defeat to the world's leading superpower?

The parallel between Vietnam and Afghanistan extends to U.S. support for a corrupt regime widely hated by the population, but considered an essential component of U.S. strategy.

U.S. officials had hoped the August 20 election in Afghanistan would bolster the credibility of the government. But widespread fraud and low turnout made a mockery of that.

In early September, Afghan election officials declared Karzai the winner, with 54 percent of the vote--giving him the absolute majority he needed to avoid a runoff election. But a UN commission that ultimately must certify the election results announced the same day that the official outcome will be delayed several more weeks because of recounts.

Tank crews in Afghanistan wait for the order to move out
Tank crews in Afghanistan wait for the order to move out (Edward Stewart)

The scale of alleged fraud is incredible--in Karzai's home province of Kandahar, more than 350,000 votes were counted, but election observers think only 25,000 people cast ballots.

Before the election, Karzai's credibility suffered further because of alliances he made with various warlords and drug traffickers to gain votes--and in the hope of extending the authority of the central government beyond the capital city of Kabul. So the U.S. is backing a central government that is increasingly dependent on forces Washington wants to crack down on.

THE QUESTION now being debated at the Pentagon and in foreign policy think tanks is whether the U.S. should commit even more money, advisers and soldiers to the conflict, in the hopes that it can finally defeat the Taliban insurgency.

In one of his first acts as president, Barack Obama ordered an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan--when the last 6,000 of them arrive in the coming several weeks, the total U.S. troop presence will be 68,000.

But the actual force at the disposal of the commander of NATO forces in the region, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is higher than that. There are some 30,000 troops from other NATO countries, and the number of civilian contractors working for the Pentagon exceeds the number of U.S. troops in uniform--the highest ratio of contractors to military personnel of any war in U.S. history.

But this still isn't enough, according to McChrystal, who has just delivered a highly anticipated assessment of the U.S. war effort to Obama.

So now Obama must decide whether to send even more soldiers to Afghanistan--even as polls in the U.S. show public support for the war falling. A recent Washington Post survey found that a majority of Americans say the war is no longer worth fighting, and only 24 percent support sending more troops.

Skepticism about the war has grown with the number of foreign troops killed--324 as of early September, already surpassing the 294 killed in all of 2008, which was previously the deadliest year for foreign forces.

But there is a deeper questioning about what the U.S. can expect to accomplish in Afghanistan--something reflected in the case made by conservative columnist George Will, who came out this month in favor of the U.S. reducing its presence rather than escalating adding a conservative voice to those of a few rogue Democrats like Sen. Russ Feingold.

So far, the U.S. has pursued a so-called counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan--of trying to kill and capture as many "enemy fighters" as possible. This has meant using U.S./NATO troops to draw out insurgent forces, and then using air strikes to wipe out the "bad guys."

But these air strikes have resulted in a high civilian death toll that is alienating more and more Afghans. Last week, for example, German troops called in U.S. air strikes against two oil trucks stuck in a riverbed. The air assault killed between 60 and 100 civilians who had gathered around the trucks to help themselves to desperately needed fuel.

In any event, the air power strategy hasn't eroded the core of the insurgent forces, particularly with its base of operations in Pakistan.

McChrystal hopes to change U.S. strategy from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency. This means putting a premium on protecting Afghan civilians and on political efforts to win over "cooperative" elements of the insurgency, using money and ideological pressure to entice them to join local police and security forces.

But this approach is fraught with difficulties. The "Taliban insurgency" is made up of a multitude of different groups and factions, each with its own set of grievances and demands. This makes the project of winning them more complex.

Plus, McChrystal's plan requires a dramatic escalation in the number of "boots on the ground" to clear and hold territory while the negotiations take place to disentangle insurgents willing to be co-opted from those who aren't. That will mean many more targets for an insurgency that even U.S. military commanders acknowledge has improved its effectiveness.

According to press reports, McChrystal's still-classified report to Obama doesn't include a request for more troops, but he is clearly laying the groundwork for this.

As CBS News reported, "The general is leaning toward three major options--the 'high-risk strategy' is to add only 15,000 troops to the 68,000 that will be on the ground by the end of this year--as in, the highest risk of failure. The 'medium-risk strategy' is to add 25,000 troops, and the 'low-risk strategy' is 45,000, according to a senior defense adviser helping craft the plan."

But the crumbling public support for the war has increased the political risks for Obama to order the troop increases McChrystal says will lower military risks.

GIVEN THE administration's behavior in office so far, it's more likely than not that the Pentagon will get the escalation it wants. "There's not a lot of rethinking that the strategy we have pretty much worked on to go forward with needs some drastic or dramatic revision," an administration official told the Washington Post.

But at least some figures around Obama recognize he will be playing with fire if he continues sending soldiers to Afghanistan.

In early September, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who accompanied Obama on a trip to Iraq during last year's presidential campaign, suggested publicly that Obama should listen to recordings of conversations that Lyndon Johnson had with Georgia Sen. Richard Russell.

Hagel said Obama should focus especially on "those in which LBJ told Russell that we would not win in Vietnam, but that he did not want to pull out and be the first American president to lose a war."

Johnson's escalation of the war led to the destruction of his presidency--he was forced to call off his campaign to win re-election in 1968 after the Tet Offensive by Vietnamese liberation forces proved once and for all that the U.S. was losing the war.

Right now, the U.S. military is making the case for escalation, and for the same reason it did during Vietnam--to shift the balance of the war and put a winning strategy in place. If Obama goes along, a war that few people believe is actually winnable will become his war.

Further Reading

From the archives