What Does 30,000 Troops Really Buy Us?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the eight years since the United States began bombing Afghanistan in retaliation for the attacks of 9/11 perpetrated by Osama bin Laden -- who had been given safe harbor by the Talibani leaders of the country -- more than 1,500 men and women of the coalition forces, mostly American, have given their lives to help create a stable, friendly government there. That is, of course, to say nothing of the costs borne by the Afghan civilian population.

Two years into the start of that war, the Bush Administration chose to downgrade the United States' commitment in Afghanistan in favor of pursuing a war in Iraq. As a result of that decision, more than 4,600 men and women -- mostly American -- have given their lives fighting that war, to say nothing of the costs to Iraqi civilians. Few would argue that Saddam Hussein ran a government friendly to ours, or to U.S. interests, but fewer would argue that the war we began in Iraq under false pretenses has been worth the entire price both the United States and Iraq have paid. Winning these days looks less like being greeted as liberators and more like preserving a fragile and violence-ridden "peace" in the hopes that the U.S.-backed democratic government can survive sectarian divisions long enough to forge some kind of less-crappy future for the people it purportedly represents.

Today, President Barack Obama announced his plans to send 30,000 more American troops--and some as-yet unclear number of coalition forces--to Afghanistan to do there both what we likely should have finished before starting the war in Iraq and imitate what little we've achieved in Iraq to date.

Obama's speech doesn't envision an overwhelming victory in Afghanistan--a welcome return to realism from the wet dreams of the neocons to which the previous administration subjected this country. What it does provide for, given that it envisions having troops there through 2011, is as laughably modest as the little we've really achieved in Iraq in half the time.

We must deny al Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's Security Forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.

What Barack Obama expects to achieve at an additional commitment of 30,000 American troops -- and some as-yet unknown number of American lives -- is that the government we've spent so much time and effort to install won't allow al Qaeda to launch another series of attack from the soil that has already seen much spilled American blood. In addition, he hopes those soldiers' presence will keep the Taliban from affecting another takeover of the government (unless it's at the ballot box). And he hopes that the security forces and government now led by the man still known as the Mayor of Kabul will be able to take over securing a fragile and violence-ridden stalemate long enough to let us withdraw gracefully without calling it a defeat.

Are those lives really worth that "success"? Is a graceful withdrawal and a less unstable puppet government worth more American lives? Are either of those things even possible given the history of Afghanistan and the destruction wrought by decades of war? Scholars who study the Thirty Years' War might argue that the political consequences of and civilian adaptations to decades of war are more far-reaching than this (or any) Western government has grasped; those who have noticed the change in the imagery used in Afghan rugs made by civilians might have similarly thoughtful reasons to question the changes in Afghan culture caused by decades of war, and how that might affect our plans for stability.

Progressives who voted for Obama mistakenly believing -- without reason, as he never billed himself as dovish -- that he would work to bring a swift end to our military commitments and forge a foreign policy based less on what reality our military could construct for us in the short-term, were dealt a harsh blow tonight. Some seemingly now believe that the only way to bring our soldiers home is to send more of them over there to risk their lives to achieve Obama's now-specific goals; others evince a bitterness that the socialist president Senator McCain swore to us we were getting was little more than a centrist of a certain familiar Clintonian flavor.

Few of us, however, will have to pay the price for being wrong. That price will fall squarely on some of the fresh-faced officers-to-be shown watching his speech. It will fall more so on the enlisted men and women who were watching from duty stations, mess halls and comfortable homes they'll soon be leaving to prove Obama right.