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ZP Heller

ZP Heller

Posted February 12, 2009 | 07:04 PM (EST)

Let the Debates Begin: Can More Troops Solve Afghanistan's Problems?

The soaring violence in Afghanistan, including yesterday's suicide attack on three Kabul government buildings that killed 27 people, must force us to rethink our country's objectives in the region. Proponents of military escalation have yet to state our mission clearly. Nor have they defined success or come to a consensus about what it would cost to achieve stability, either in terms of troop numbers or dollars spent.

Is our country in this war to prevent the region from turning into a terrorist safe haven? Or do we have the lofty, long-term goals of protecting the Afghan population and preventing regional destabilization? And how will we pay for it, considering our own economic morass and the fact that this war currently costs $36 billion annually? None of this is clear, which leaves a window of opportunity for some much-needed public debate.

Yesterday, Brave New Foundation released the first video in its series of Rethink Afghanistan debates on the issues surrounding this war. Longtime political activist and writer Tom Hayden squared off against Michael O'Hanlon, an expert in U.S. national security policy with the Brookings Insitution. Their topic: Can more troops solve Afghanistan's problems?

Hayden, who has been against the war from the outset, said we went into Afghanistan burning a haystack to find a needle. He estimated the war could cost $1 trillion by the end of the Obama administration's first term, with thousands more casualties to US troops and Afghan civilians, the latter of which would only exacerbate anti-American sentiment. By contrast, O'Hanlon suggested the already suffering people of Afghanistan would be worse off if we pulled out. He called for a similar strategy to the one employed in Iraq, namely, protecting the civilian population while training Afghan security forces.

That strategy, which may have had limited success in Iraq recently, seems like it would take much longer to achieve in Afghanistan. And indeed, counterinsurgency analysts like David Kilcullen have said our military might be mired in Afghanistan for 10-15 more years. What's worse, the additional 30,000 troops that Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called for would cost at least an extra $24 billion a year. While emphasizing the total costs of this war, Hayden pointed out the key fact that our country has only provided $5.6 billion total for development aid in Afghanistan, which O'Hanlon conceded was insufficient. In fact, it's a pathetic amount when compared to how much we're spending on military operations.

Whether or not you see this war from Hayden's or O'Hanlon's perspective, what is clear is that we have to have debates like this now, in order to question whether we should commit more troops, endanger more lives, and spend hundreds of billions more. We need to start with debates like this online, and get them all the way to the point where Congress is having their own oversight hearings to decide the best way to proceed.