by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
September 3, 2009
A CRUCIAL MOMENT FOR THE U.S. IN AFGHANISTAN
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It's been overshadowed by the ongoing battle over health care reform and the lingering effect of the current, but it's time for Americans to start paying attention to Afghanistan.
The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly eight years. It's a war that is losing support at home. The most recent ABC/Washington Post poll, taken three weeks ago, found that 51 percent of respondents believe the war is not worth fighting. It is the first time that position has received majority support. Only 24 percent supported sending more troops to Afghanistan, while 45 percent think the level of troops should be decreased. A July New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 57 percent of Americans think things are going badly for the United States in Afghanistan, compared with 33 percent who think they are going well.
There are 62,000 U.S. troops, 40,500 non-U.S. NATO forces and nearly 74,000 private military contractors in Afghanistan, the highest number since the war to oust the Taliban began in 2001. Despite the recent addition of 17,000 American troops ordered by the Obama Administration and the extra security efforts surrounding the presidential election there, the situation in Afghanistan seems to be deteriorating.
Earlier this year, President Obama launched a new strategy in Afghanistan, sending an additional 21,000 troops, installing a new commander, promising more civilian reconstruction help, shifting to more protection of the population and building up Afghan security forces.
Will it make a difference? It's hard to say. The government there remains so plagued by corruption and inefficiency that it has no legitimacy with the Afghan people. The Taliban still controls about a third of the country, and they have gotten more sophisticated in their military tactics.
At the Veterans of Foreign Wars' national convention in Phoenix last month, President Obama portrayed Afghanistan as the central front in the war against international terrorism. "This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al- Qaida would plot to kill more Americans."
Supporters of the Afghan war say the United States needs to mount a stronger effort against the Taliban by sending an additional 45,000 U.S. troops and boosting the Afghan National Army and police to at least 400,000 personnel from the current 175,000. The countries in the NATO mission are also under pressure to send more soldiers.
At the same time, there's a bill in the House, H.R. 2404, which would "require the Secretary of Defense to submit a report to Congress outlining the United States exit strategy for United States military forces in Afghanistan." So far, nearly 100 members, including a number of Republicans, have signed on as co-sponsors of Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern's proposal. But just calling for an exit strategy is not enough for Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who last week called on President Obama to announce a timetable for withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
"After eight years, I am not convinced that pouring more and more troops into Afghanistan is a well thought out policy," said Feingold. "I think it is time we start discussing a flexible timetable so that people around the world can see when we are going to bring our troops out. Showing the people there and here that we have a sense about when it is time to leave is one of the best things we can do."
Is it time for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan? Think of what the Obama Administration trying to do. It's trying to bring democracy a nation when few of its citizens have any living memory of what it's like to live under a centralized state; a place carved up into hundreds of little fiefdoms ruled by heavily armed tribal warlords.
The United States is trying to bring stability to a place where 70 percent of the population live on less than $2 a day and subsistence farming is the main occupation, a place with an average life expectancy of 45 years and the world's highest infant mortality rates, a place whose most profitable export product is opium.
And it's not just Afghanistan that's the problem. Some observers believe escalating the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan will bolster support for radical Islamic insurgents in Pakistan, the place where Taliban militants and elements of al-Qaida have their staging areas. Then there's Iran -- which shares a border with Afghanistan and has lost thousands of its soldiers in battles with Afghan drug lords. How does Obama convince Iran to help build a more stable relationship with its neighbor with U.S.-Iranian relations at bottom right now?
And there's our own economic and political problems. After squandering more than $1 trillion on an unnecessary war in Iraq, can Obama summon the political will to continue to commit our nation to a long and costly war in Afghanistan? Is Obama in danger of ending up like Lyndon Johnson, and seeing the lofty domestic goals of his Administration crushed by a war that has no justification and no end?
Our nation is now at a turning point. Can the Obama Administration transform the Afghan mission into a true multinational effort that puts as much emphasis on building the social and economic structure of a poor, troubled nation as it does fighting the Taliban? Or are we about to enter a quagmire that will cost us dearly is blood and treasure? On these questions rest the fate of President Obama.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog>/A> on The Harvard Classics.