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Obama Warned About Afghan Escalation: Out of Frying Pan, Into Fire?

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Out of the frying pan into the fire? In his race for the White House, Barack Obama called long and often for sending many more troops to Afghanistan (even before we withdraw quite a few from Iraq). It was a required thing to say on the campaign trail to show toughness and also to make the politically winning point that President Bush had fought the wrong war, in Iraq, when we had not yet cleaned out Afghanistan.

Did he really mean it? If so, is it really the right thing to do, especially with our chief national security threat now coming from within -- in the form of our economic crisis?

The New York Times on Sunday presented a host of op-eds on Iraq and Afghanistan, including one from a guy named Rumsfeld and another from someone called Chalabi. The ones related to the Afghan conflict should raise questions for readers, and I hope, the Obama team. Just as the new pieces appeared, the Karzai government revealed that Obama had called the nation's leader and pledged to increase U.S. support. The NATO commander wants to nearly double troop strength there.

This past August, I devoted a column here to this subject after a brief flurry of front-page articles on Afghanistan arrived to mark U.S. deaths there finally hitting the 500 mark. The war in Afghanistan, long overlooked, is now getting more notice, I observed, before asking: "But does that mean the U.S., finally starting (perhaps) to dig out of Iraq, should now commit to another open-ended war, even for a good cause, not so far away?"

Nearly everyone in the media, and on the political stage, still calls this the "good war." Obama has even said "we must win" there. But it's the same question we have faced in Iraq: What does he define as "winning"? How much are we willing to expend (in lives lost and money) at a time of a severe budget crunch and overstretched military? Shouldn't the native forces -- and NATO -- be doing more? And what about Pakistan? And so on.

We've been fighting there even longer than in Iraq, if that seems possible.

Few voices in the mainstream media -- and even in the liberal blogosphere -- have tackled this subject, partly because of long arguing for the need to fight the "good war" as opposed to the "bad war." But now some commentators -- with impeccable pro-military credentials -- are starting to sound off on the dangers.

Back in August, I was reduced to quoting Thomas Friedman from a recent New York Times column:

The main reason we are losing in Afghanistan is not because there are too few American soldiers, but because there are not enough Afghans ready to fight and die for the kind of government we want....Obama needs to ask himself honestly: "Am I for sending more troops to Afghanistan because I really think we can win there, because I really think that that will bring an end to terrorism, or am I just doing it because to get elected in America, post-9/11, I have to be for winning some war?"

And I reprinted at length comments from Joseph L. Galloway, the legendary war reporter, based largely on a recent paper written by Gen. Barry McCaffrey after his tour of the war zone. McCaffrey had said "we can't shoot our way out of Afghanistan, and the two or three or more American combat brigades proposed by the two putative nominees for president are irrelevant." Galloway noted sardonically: "We can't afford to fail in Afghanistan, the general says, but he doesn't address the question of whether we can afford to succeed there, either."

Now the New York Times presents several cautionary views. Here are three of them, hardly a group of lefty peaceniks.

Anthony Cordesman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

[N]o one involved believes that the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan's northern territories can be fully won, or even transferred to Afghan and Pakistani hands, by even the end of President Obama's first term. For at least the next two to three years, the war will intensify, and virtually all of the additional burden will be borne by the United States.

Leaks of a new National Intelligence Estimate have shown that we are now losing the war for several reasons: a lack of Afghan competence; a half-hearted Pakistani commitment to the fight; a shortage of American, NATO and International Security Assistance Force troops; too few aid workers; and nation-building programs that were designed for peacetime and are rife with inefficiency and fraud&hellip.As things stand, it will almost certainly take until 2011 to bring enough military advisers into Afghanistan to train its army and police forces to the level where locals can replace international troops. And with increasing terrorist attacks on non-governmental groups, many aid workers are being forced to leave the country.

Rory Slaughter, former British Foreign Service officer:

Afghanistan does not matter as much as Barack Obama thinks. Terrorism is not the key strategic threat facing the United States. America, Britain and our allies have not created a positive stable environment in the Middle East. We have no clear strategy for dealing with China. The financial crisis is a more immediate threat to United States power and to other states; environmental catastrophe is more dangerous for the world. And even from the perspective of terrorism, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are more lethal.

President-elect Obama's emphasis on Afghanistan and his desire to send more troops and money there is misguided. Overestimating its importance distracts us from higher priorities, creates an unhealthy dynamic with the government of Afghanistan and endangers the one thing it needs -- the stability that might come from a patient, limited, long-term relationship with the international community. ..

When the decision was made to increase troops in 2005, there was no insurgency. But as NATO became increasingly obsessed with transforming the country and brought in more money and troops to deal with corruption and the judiciary, warlords and criminals, insecurity in rural areas and narcotics, it failed. In fact, things got worse. These new NATO troops encountered a fresh problem -- local Taliban resistance -- which has drawn them into a counterinsurgency campaign.

Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary of defense:

President Bush's decision to increase combat troop levels in Iraq in January 2007 sent a clear message that he was determined not to abandon a people to death squads and terrorists. We will need the same commitment to helping the people of Afghanistan succeed, but that does not mean we will achieve it with the same tactics or strategies.

The way forward in Afghanistan will need to reflect the current circumstances there -- not the circumstances in Iraq two years ago. Additional troops in Afghanistan may be necessary, but they will not, by themselves, be sufficient to lead to the results we saw in Iraq. A similar confluence of events that contributed to success in Iraq does not appear to exist in Afghanistan.

What's needed in Afghanistan is an Afghan solution, just as Iraqi solutions have contributed so fundamentally to progress in Iraq. And a surge, if it is to be successful, will need to be an Afghan surge.

Left unanswered in the current debate is the critical question of how thousands of additional American troops might actually bring long-term stability to Afghanistan -- a country 80,000 square miles larger than Iraq yet with security forces just one-fourth the size of Iraq's. Afghanistan also lacks Iraq's oil and other economic advantages. It is plagued by the narcotics trade. Its borders are threatened by terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan. Fractured groups of Pashtun tribesmen on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border do not yet appear willing to unite and take on the insurgents in their midst, as Arab tribes did in Iraq.

Further, Afghanistan has a long history of defeating foreign armies that sought strength in numbers. The Soviet Union tried to occupy Afghanistan with hundreds of thousands of troops -- and withdrew, defeated and broken. More United States troops could raise tensions, particularly in Afghanistan's Pashtun south, where the insurgency is strongest...

In a few weeks, the new commander in chief, Barack Obama, will assume the responsibility of leading a nation at a time of war. Time and flexibility are the two constants of military success. In a struggle with an adaptable, thinking enemy, there is no single template for success. More is not always better. One size does not fit all.

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Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher and its new blog. His latest book, on Iraq and the media, is "So Wrong for So Long."