02/20/2009 12:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

No Longer A Forgotten War

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, and Ryan Powers

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For far too long, the war in Afghanistan has been dubbed "the forgotten war." After U.S. forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, the Bush administration quickly shifted critical resources to the less critical war in Iraq. The Pentagon repeatedly begged President Bush for additional troops for Afghanistan, which never seemed to materialize. The Center for American Progress's Lawrence Korb and Caroline Wadhams warned that this "forgotten front" could become "a terrorist haven for Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist networks." In the meantime, security around the region dramatically deteriorated, heroin production spiked, and government corruption ran rampant. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen has said of the current situation, "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must." In the past year, attention has shifted back to Afghanistan as coalition troop deaths there began surpassing those in Iraq. On Tuesday, President Obama announced that had approved the deployment of 17,000 U.S. soldiers to be sent to Afghanistan. This move is a fulfillment of a campaign promise made by Obama and marks the beginning of the drawdown in Iraq, where these troops were originally headed. "This increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires," explained Obama. To put together a comprehensive strategy to accompany this troop increase, Obama has authorized a strategic review -- led by former CIA official Bruce Riedel, who was a member of the CAP's 2008 working group on Pakistan -- of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

CHANGING THE DYNAMICS: There are already 38,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, compared to 146,000 in Iraq. To meet Obama's request, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered the deployment of 8,000 Marines -- who are expected to arrive by late spring -- and a 4,000-strong Army brigade that will follow in the summer. Another 5,000 support troops will be sent at a "later date." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) welcomed Obama's announcement this week; Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said that more troops were long overdue, but added that "the president must spell out for the American people what he believes victory in Afghanistan will look like and articulate a coherent strategy for achieving it." It's important to keep in mind the mission in Afghanistan. As Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) recently wrote in the Washington Post, "The United States is not in Afghanistan to make it our 51st state -- but to make sure it does not become an al-Qaeda narco-state and terrorist beachhead capable of destabilizing neighboring Pakistan." Indeed, the bulk of these new troops will be going to southern Afghanistan, where the poppy trade has exploded under the Taliban, which uses the profits to fund its forces. "What this [additional troop deployment] allows us to do is change the dynamics of the security situation, predominantly in southern Afghanistan, where we are at best stalemated," said commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan Gen. David McKiernan.

COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH: The deployment of these additional troops is part of Obama's commitment to make Afghanistan "the center of our global counterinsurgency campaign." Part of this strategy requires building, training, and equipping the Afghan National Army. The new troops authorized by Obama will have a "dual mission" to "help double the size of the Afghan Army to 134,000 by the end of 2011 and provide security in Afghan communities, which increasingly are falling under Taliban control." Accompanying Obama's troop surge should be a corresponding civilian surge; McKiernan has already "pressed for more help from civilian agencies, both within the U.S. government and from other countries." As the Center for American Progress has written, actions in Afghanistan also have an impact on Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons and a far larger population. Obama has recognized this fact and appointed Richard Holbrooke to be the Special Envoy to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair has acknowledged that "no improvement in Afghanistan is possible without Pakistan taking control of its border areas and improving governance." This week, the Pakistani government made a concession to local Taliban leaders and agreed to enforce strict religious law in the Swat Valley, a resort near the Afghan border that was once known as the "Switzerland of Pakistan." After being ousted from Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban has rebuilt strength in Pakistan; this recent Swat deal is similar to the ones struck in 2004, 2006, 2008, which ended up creating greater safe havens. Additionally, U.S. missile strikes on suspected al Qaeda hideouts in Pakistan have been extraordinarily effective in "tracking and killing high-value terrorist suspects," but they have "not helped to prevent the spread of jihadist sympathies in the tribal regions and beyond, nor has it slowed the stream of militants and material into Afghanistan," national security analyst Micah Zenko notes. "In fact, according to Pakistani intelligence reports, refugees from Afghanistan have flocked to the Taliban by the hundreds to avenge the drones' killings of innocent civilians."

CHALLENGES AHEAD: Afghanistan requires a sustained commitment from the international community. One senior U.S. commander has warned that "it's going to get worse before it gets better." McKiernan has stated that even with the additional forces, "2009 is going to be a tough year." A majority of the American public currently believes the situation is going "badly" in Afghanistan and support Obama's deployment of additional troops as "unfortunate but necessary." Major impediments to progress include increasing insurgent violence, corruption and the illegal economy, and a lack of coordination within U.S. government and with international allies. According to the United Nations, 2,118 civilians died in fighting in Afghanistan last year, "a 40% hike as the war grows ever more bloody." The Taliban greeted Holbrooke's arrival in Kabul last week "by launching an audacious terror attack on three government buildings in the capital, leaving 26 people dead." Government corruption is now so bad in Afghanistan that many women say they would prefer living under the Taliban. Delivering a threat assessment on Feb. 12, Blair concurred with this view, stating that corruption in Kabul and throughout the country had bolstered support for the Taliban and warlords. Obama avoided asking Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper for increased troop support while he was in Ottawa this week, and convincing other countries may be tough. In the past, Obama has pressed NATO allies to step up their commitments and not let the U.S. and U.K. do all the "dirty work."