Late last month, five U.S. troops died within 24 hours in southern Afghanistan. Taliban militants have killed more Americans and other troops deployed by NATO this year than in any of the previous years since President Bush ordered the invasion in 2001.
Will President Obama supplement the 21,000 soldiers sent to Afghanistan during the summer? If he heeds the experience of the Vietnam War, he’ll find a gracious way to leave the place and save his presidency.
But Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces, whose career should have ended when he admitted participating in the cover-up of the “friendly fire” killing of football star Pat Tillman, has reportedly asked Obama for up to 45,000 new troops. That would bring the total number of U.S. troops to 100,000, equaling the number of Soviet troops in Afghanistan at the height of their failed occupation. “I think that in some areas that the breadth of the violence, the geographic spread of violence, is a little more than I would have gathered,” the general admitted on 60 Minutes. How can that be? Didn’t he read Pentagon reports on U.S. casualties?
In Washington, Congress is debating sending more troops to back a government that engaged in election fraud in the August and has earned the reputation of extreme corruption.
That sure sounds familiar. In 1968, Gen. William Westmoreland assured President Lyndon Johnson that 200,000-plus troops would stabilize a corrupt puppet South Vietnamese government, provide security for the local population, and win hearts and minds. We all know how well that worked out.
This should provoke obvious questions in the White House: Does the enemy have a deeper source of recruits throughout the Muslim world than the United States and NATO? If so, how are we to reach our goals of nation-building and destroying terrorist bases? How long can the United States stay in Afghanistan? How long can the Taliban remain there? They disappeared when U.S. forces arrived Oct. 7, 2001; they reappeared in larger numbers when U.S. troops got “distracted” by Iraq.
McChrystal plans to stay in Afghanistan for years. A New York Times/CBS News poll released last month indicated that approximately half of the country opposes increasing troop levels in Afghanistan. Only 29 percent of respondents thought Obama should increase troop levels.
McChrystal told Obama that U.S. military strategy should focus less on protecting our troops and more on securing Afghan communities. He admitted such a plan “could expose military personnel and civilians to greater risk in the near term.” However, the general concluded, successful linking of U.S. troops with the Afghan people would transcend the losses. “Accepting some risk in the short term will ultimately save lives in the long run,” he wrote in his report sent to the Defense Department in August. It was leaked to The Washington Post in late September.
The report contains echoes of Westmoreland. Mr. Bush claimed he needed to invade Afghanistan to get bin Laden and the al-Qaeda training camp there. Yet, the 9/11 attackers planned and prepared in Germany and the United States with Saudi (not Afghan) money and backing. Eight frustrating years later, Pakistan seems to have imported the terror war — not war against terror. The real goal, getting al-Qaeda and bin Laden, has been replaced with securing the population and backing the government. This is also known as nation-building.
McChrystal’s plan involves NATO committing to long-term military counter-insurgency, ending corruption in the Afghan government and having NATO soldiers eschew body armor and secure bases and instead secure remote Afghan villages. NATO’s mission, wrote McChrystal, “cannot succeed if it is unwilling to share risk, at least equally, with the people.”
Vintage Mao Zedong and Che Guevara! But in 2006, when Canadian Air Force Capt. Trevor Greene removed his helmet “to parley with the locals…an Afghan brained him with an axe,” wrote Thomas Walkom in the Toronto Star. Capt. Greene shared the risk, but the military obviously neglected to educate the axe wielder — and the hundreds of thousands like him.
OtherWords commentaries are free to re-publish in print and online — all it takes is a simple attribution to OtherWords.org. To get a roundup of our work each Wednesday, sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.