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Sahil Kapur

Sahil Kapur

Posted February 18, 2009 | 12:32 PM (EST)

Don't Let Afghanistan Become Obama's Vietnam


President Obama has announced his plan to deploy 17,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan this year, adding to the roughly 36,000 currently active in the region. He has long portrayed Afghanistan as "the right battlefield" in the fight against America's enemies. In Obama's recent press conference, he labeled Afghanistan policy "a big challenge" and offered a sobering analysis of the situation. Although the president's goals for the region are commendable, he must carefully examine the larger strategy or Afghanistan might devolve into a hauntingly familiar quagmire.

The costs of present military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to an exploding deficit, a $10 trillion debt, a US army stretched thin and a nearly unmanageable economic crisis. In the short term, there's nothing more urgent than repairing the broken economy. Creating the appropriate policies and incentives to do so will require every last bit of effort Obama and Congress can muster up. The intense disagreements between the two parties on how to proceed economically signal that America doesn't have the luxury of spending any more time, money and lives on war while unemployment skyrockets and the housing market tumbles.

Moreover, military might is insufficient as there isn't an army to defeat. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) noted in October 2008 that "the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated badly over the past year, despite a larger US and coalition military presence." The United Nations found a 40 percent increase in Afghan civilian deaths from 2007 to 2008. Any successful strategy must involve a larger US-NATO effort that combines military, diplomatic and aid policies that are inclusive of both the Karzai government and tribal leaders in various provinces. The learning curve will be sharp as mistakes will be made and lives will be lost. Adapting the strategy along the way will require careful deliberation by the White House, Congress and the American people. Do we really have this luxury? If not, Obama must reconsider escalating operations because one foreign policy quagmire at a time is plenty.

Many have claimed that the troop surge in Iraq "worked" and want to apply the same approach to Afghanistan. But did it really work? Nobody doubts that the smaller battles of security in any particular region can be won with more soldiers, but to what extent are they achieving the larger goal of a stable government capable of protecting the interests of its people over time? And doesn't the legitimate possibility of never accomplishing this goal raise questions as to how worthwhile this surge was in the first place? Military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be mired in short term goals while the tough long-term questions on both fronts are being ignored.

So let me jump in. How exactly will more troops achieve the desired goals in Afghanistan? And does the United States currently have the energy and resources to execute the right strategy? This is an enormously complicated part of the world. Plagued by overwhelming poverty, political instability, rampant corruption and tenuous institutions, Afghanistan consists largely of indigenous tribes that have little connection to their own government, let alone the outside world. President Karzai admits that Afghanistan "has no strong national police" and "its citizens are averse to taxes and a strong central government."

Recent studies reflect a worsening situation in Afghanistan and a grim outlook for the future. The Washington Post reports that President Obama's national security team has put forth "a dire assessment" of the situation while US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke considers it "a long, difficult struggle" that will be "much tougher than Iraq." To make matters worse, Vice President Biden's attempt to court assistance from NATO allies in Europe has failed. The bigger picture is even more distressing.

"Controlling the Afghan people is a losing proposition," declares Afghan historian Stephen Tanner. No foreign power has ever managed to conquer the region. Nothing confuses and provokes rural Afghans into violence more than seeing unfamiliar soldiers in uniform carrying weapons. Abandoning the region entirely may be infeasible in the short-run as it could lead to the rise of the Taliban and create a haven for terrorist organizations, but as Fareed Zakaria deftly points out, the United States is "better at creating enemies in Afghanistan than friends." We haven't heard an explanation on how to reverse this trend.

This is a call to the mainstream media: don't let this escape you. It was less than a decade ago when journalists refused to challenge former President Bush's Iraq war pretexts and policy. It seems like a fleeting lapse in hindsight but it resulted in a shattered nation, hundreds of thousands dead and America's credibility destroyed. Newsweek exclaims in a detailed expose that the war in Afghanistan is beginning to look "disturbingly familiar" to Vietnam. America cannot afford this. Even those of us who like Obama should not give him a free pass; the consequences of another failed policy would be devastating, and would gut Obama's promise of restoring American honor and leadership in the international community.