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On the 8th anniversary of the start of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Obama faces his most crucial foreign policy decision.
[Editor's note: GlobalPost's ongoing special report, "Life, Death and the Taliban," unpacks the complex history of Afghanistan and Pakistan and how the Taliban emerged and has reconstituted itself now, eight years after the start of the U.S.-led war responding to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.]
BOSTON — It is the most fateful decision of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the most consequential foreign policy question America faces.
The issue of whether Obama should escalate the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is coming to a head this week on the eight-year anniversary of the start of the war there.
The war is faltering, corruption is rampant, an election plagued by fraud has further undercut the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai, and the Taliban is gaining ground every week. Chaos and questions as to whether the war is winnable seem to reign in the White House and the Pentagon, and in the cool air-conditioned offices behind razor wire in the U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul. And meanwhile the choreography of power is under way with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of forces in Afghanistan, entering the stage through a leaked memo and Obama in the wings agonizing in indecision as he tries to formulate a policy. Tuesday Obama told Congress a troop reduction was out of the question, but said he was undecided on whether he would implement a troop increase.
The stuff of great tragedy.
McChrystal’s obvious lobbying in favor of a troop increase of 40,000 over and above the 68,000 in country already has tested the patience of the Obama White House.
A speech McChrystal delivered in London earlier this week has raised many eyebrows in the military intelligence crowd about whether he broke the chain of command. In the speech, he clearly tried to advance a position calling for more troops, contradicting the views of Vice President Joe Biden, who favors a more modest troop presence and stepped up drone attacks.
I had been wondering for months why CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus was so conspicuously silent in the debate, and why he let McChrystal run roughshod.
And now we know the answer: Petraeus has been undergoing radiation treatment for cancer. A statement by the military says he learned he had early-stage prostate cancer in February and for the last two months has been in treatment.
This might help to explain the chaos that has been enveloping the Obama administration’s military strategy in Afghanistan. Sometimes, one man can make a difference, and in the several opportunities I have had to interview Petraeus I come away with the distinct impression that he is a game changer. He is the best mind on counterinsurgency in the American military.
But the military insists that Petraeus' doctors caught the cancer early, and that the treatments have not significantly impacted his work schedule.
So perhaps chaos is what we have to look forward to, as the administration scrambles to craft a coherent policy and a clear mission.
If the president were seeking advice — as if he doesn’t have enough already — there is an important consensus emerging among the counterinsurgency experts I know, including Andrew Bacevich, the Boston University professor of history and international relations. He is a West Point graduate, a retired Army Colonel, and the author of several books and his son, also named Andrew, was killed in action in Iraq. He speaks with a lot of authority.
Bacevich is among those who believe a troop build up is perilous and the continuing confusion about the mission in Afghanistan will prove disastrous.
The consensus is this: less is more.
There are already 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and they need more training in the tactics of counterinsurgency. They need to hit the books and study the field manual that Petraeus worked so hard to codify, and that provides the playbook for counterinsurgency strategy in the post-9/11 era. OK, it’s true the manual calls for troop ratios that would require a massive influx of U.S. soldiers into Afghanistan. But even if McChrystal's plan were put in place those ratios would still be far off. So let’s put that argument aside.
The troops need to be taught much more about the culture and the politics and the religion of the people in the country where they are serving. That kind of education will make them more effective. That’s what I learned this summer at the U.S. military’s excellent counterinsurgency training center at a forward operating base outside Kabul. You can check that out in our special report on Afghanistan: “Life, Death and the Taliban: Counterinsurgency.”
An escalation of troops — more troops who don’t know enough about where they are — could potentially work against the U.S. in Afghanistan by further alienating the population rather than providing it with more security.
Similarly, the hydrant blast of U.S. funding for development and military aid that is pouring into Afghanistan in the billions of dollars is also fraught with peril.
On face value, it would seem that giving the Afghans more and more money to create an infrastructure and build the institutions of governance that they will need could only serve to help a country that has been a basket case for so long, right?
Well, not all think so, including some, like Andrew Wilder, who have spent a lifetime in third world development particularly in countries of conflict.
“There is actually remarkably little evidence that aid has a stabilizing impact. Some argue that it has a destabilizing impact,” explained Wilder, who is now director of research at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University.
Wilder was commenting on a developing body of work on aid in Afghanistan by GlobalPost's Kabul correspondent Jean MacKenzie. Her stories, which began with this contribution to our special report “Life, Death and the Taliban,” document how the contracting process in Afghanistan is being manipulated by the Taliban and providing the insurgency with an estimated tens of millions of dollars in funding. As MacKenzie has uncovered, in this and subsequent stories, the Taliban is shaking down Afghan subcontractors on huge U.S. aid development projects and military procurement contracts through what amounts to a protection racket. Either you pay, or the people working on the project are in peril.
So what can be done about that aid going to the Taliban? The contracts should be smaller and better managed, with a larger number of accountants and project managers keeping their eyes on where the money is going.
In other words, once again less is more.
Back on Oct. 7, 2001, when the U.S.-led air strikes began, I was there among a group of correspondents in the country who covered the U.S. retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks.
It was eight years ago, not that long really. But it’s still hard to remember just how traumatized America was back then, how scary it was to be on the front lines with the Taliban still in power and Al Qaeda fighters literally arrayed on hillsides across the valley from us speaking in Arabic on two-way radios.
We all knew then that this would be a very long war.
But I don’t think any of us realized that eight years later America would be pondering an escalation of the conflict, or that the Taliban would be resurgent and in many areas taking control.
Back then an Afghan military commander who we had gotten to know said to me, “Welcome to the Great Game,” referring to the British empire’s long and ill-fated adventures in Afghanistan.
I wonder why our military leaders don’t simply look around at the graveyards of empires past in Afghanistan and realize that it is time to clarify the mission, assign the appropriate troop levels to carry it out and prepare to leave the country in the hands of the Afghan people.
Note: This story was updated to refelct that Andrew Bacevich is a retired Army Colonel.