Afghanistan: No Good Alternatives

We have been at war for eight years and the pace of military action has yet to decrease. How long can it go on? Clearly, the troops are worn and our children's future is at stake.

This past week, I marched with my seven year old son Brandon in the NYC Veteran's day parade along with a group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I brought Brandon along for the march because combat is a journey that is made by troops and their families alike. It was special to march with my son, because it reminded me of the time I spent away from him in 2003. I was also reminded of the troops now deployed away from their families and the President's upcoming strategic decision on the war in Afghanistan.

As I watched Brandon march down Fifth Avenue by my side, I considered whether he might ever choose to serve in the military. He would be a good soldier, I think. Brandon is a good team player and is full of determination. It is a scary thought, but I would be proud if he served our country one day. Hopefully, we'll have capable leaders who understand the nature of war and do everything to avoid it. This assumes that we will have ended this war which after eight years seems no closer to resolution than when it began.

The President's decision on Afghanistan could determine whether children born after September 11th are sent to this war. It might have seemed unfathomable back in 2001 to think that this war would have gone on so long, but here we are eight years in and no end in sight.


The President is about to face his biggest test in office -- answering a call from his Generals to escalate an already unpopular war. There are no good alternatives in war, only lesser evils. As much as President Obama might try to build consensus, accountability for the decision will be his and his alone.

Certainly, history will judge President Obama's decision with caveats -- that he inherited a war put on the backburner and an economy on the brink of collapse. However, at this point in history the President has the opportunity to reaffirm a previously chosen path, or to choose a new one. History will judge him on this point.

However, historians will not judge President Obama for decades to come, most likely. In the meantime, he has plenty of skeptics and political rivals to deal with. Although I concede that Bob Woodward will probably have a play-by-play analysis of the decision making process in an upcoming book, the long-term implications of the actual decision will not be known for decades. The outcome rests with our troops overseas and the viability of the strategy employed.

Most, if not all, politicians will hedge their support one way or another. Those who support counter-insurgency will say they think we should send more troops faster, while those opposed will say that we shouldn't send any. Again, it is easy to be a skeptic -- history does not judge them.

There will always be hawks that believe we should do more and doves who think no wars are worth fighting. However, the strategy not selected will always look better as time wears on because alternative histories never have to deal with the realities of the unknown. The narratives scripted by skeptics are never soundly tested, nor can they be refuted with evidence.

This is one reason why the "go big or go home" rationale might make sense if it were possible to take either course. It is irrefutable that we cannot "go big" enough to satisfy the extreme on that end. We don't have the resources.

On the other side, the "go home" option is also impossible; at least in the immediate term. The question is 'how to do it responsibly?' It is impossible to please anyone. No one is content when troops are dying and nor should they. That's the bottom line.

To stave off the effects of criticism the President will be required to continue to make his case to the American people until we begin to realize success. That may be impossible in light of the challenging economy we currently face.

So far, the President has handled criticism well from my perspective. Getting the decision right for the long-term is infinitely more important than satisfying any constituency in the short-term.

I appreciate that the President has taken time to deliberate this decision. Stepping back for a moment, it seems clear to me that a decision to send such large numbers of troops overseas could not be made with any less deliberation without jeopardizing the mission going forward. The President is right to take time. We needed time to test our assumptions. Still, I imagine that the troops are getting restless. It is difficult being on the front lines and not knowing how things might change. I've been there and sympathize with those troops in that position.

I am undecided on which direction we should take in Afghanistan because potential success largely rests in the convictions of our President and the will of the American people. It is important to understand that there is no silver bullet strategy. I believe several strategies could be successful if properly resourced and implemented -- including the 'going home' option. Execution is far more important and requires leadership full of conviction.

The complexity of the issue is important to note, however. Taking the wrong approach might lead to short-term gains while ensuring a more dramatic long-term failure. Pragmatism is required.

The most coherent rationale for being in Afghanistan relates to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Our assumption is that extremists could take over the Pakistani government if we were to leave Afghanistan. I believe this assumption, whether true or faulty, should be the key point tested in determining our mission in the region and whether we should have one there at all.

How does this end? Or, better yet, how can this end?

Buried within the central question of "how can it end" are numerous issues that make the situation much more complex than Iraq was in 2006. Most obvious of all, in my mind, is that Iraq possesses oil that it can sell to fund its budget requirements. Afghanistan lacks the same natural resources and economic potential. Furthermore, the enemy we have been fighting, the Taliban, is indigenous to Afghanistan.

One question we have to ask is, should we try to destroy the Taliban, or is there another strategy to achieve our original goal? -- denying sanctuary to Al Qaeda.

We are now poised to help the Afghans further grow their military to provide security for their people. If this mission is reinforced as a key component of the President's new strategy, then it might offer us a way out of Afghanistan while denying Al Qaeda sanctuary.

We should closely examine the long-term implications of this approach, however.

Our Generals have been clear -- Afghanistan will likely require a similar commitment to execute a successful counter-insurgency as we conducted in Iraq. Yet, I believe the challenge in Afghanistan is greater than it was in Iraq. For one, how can Afghanistan's economy sustain the military force that we are about to arm, equip and train with limited tax revenues?

In considering strategy, the President should weigh Afghanistan's economic potential in determining the long-term viability of their government in addition to the credibility of Afghani leadership.

Iraq's economy was a strategic focus in the counter-insurgency effort, as coalition forces sought ways to facilitate the repair of its oil industry. If we don't address the economic question in Afghanistan, then we could end up building a house of cards ready to collapse when we eventually leave.

If we are to proceed with any portion of a counter-insurgency option, then I'd propose that we be prepared to invest a significant amount into developing Afghanistan's infrastructure. We should also consider investing in building more schools as some have suggested. Investing in Afghanistan's infrastructure might allow their government to become self-sustaining within the intermediate-term. Infrastructure is the catalyst for long-term growth. Failing to facilitate economic growth will only deepen Afghanistan's dependence on our presence as they grow their government and security forces.

The President is certainly aware the potential backlash here in the U.S. of investing in another country's economy while ours still struggles. Can we invest the necessary amount in Afghanistan to promote success while also living up to our obligations at home? That is an enormous challenge, but not necessarily impossible.

The economic question is pivotal in my mind because growing the Afghan Army to combat insurgent forces could backfire as did our support of the mujahedeen years ago. At some point, the American people will probably demand our leaders to get out of Afghanistan either in polling or at the voting booth. At that point, will we have left Afghanistan in a self-sustaining position, or will we risk ending right back where we started?

We should not forget our original intent -- denying sanctuary for Al Qaeda. Balancing this need with our economic security must be a strategic priority. At some point, too, we must bring the troops home.

I pray that this war is over by the time my son Brandon is of age to enlist in the military. Children born after the start of this war should not be put in a position to play a role in ending it. Some of the options being considered make that a possibility. Already, their generation will help to pay for it.

Unfortunately, our President has no good alternatives in Afghanistan, only the necessary decision.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ryan McDermott.