Obama: Break Your Afghan Pledge
December 14, 2008
During the recent campaign you pledged to send an additional 20,000 American troops to fight the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. I supported your campaign, but I hope you will now break this pledge. It served its purpose by reassuring skeptics you would be ready to use force if necessary as Commander-in-Chief, and it cleverly reminded voters of the Bush Administration’s decision to downgrade the original war on terror in Afghanistan, in favor of a dubious project in Iraq. You turned it into a good applause line: "The war on terror began in Afghanistan, and that’s where it will end."
But now you should abandon this line, for two reasons. First, security in Afghanistan has deteriorated so much that the 20,000 troops you have proposed to send are no longer enough to turn the tide against the Taliban. Second, America’s war on terror is no longer centered in Afghanistan, or even Iraq. Al Qaeda now works primarily out of Pakistan.
Sending 20,000 more forces in Afghanistan will push total American troop strength in that country up to 58,000. If Afghanistan were as urbanized as Iraq and if the Taliban insurgency had an urban base, then a troop surge on this scale might have an impact. But Afghanistan is physically larger than Iraq and more than 75 percent of all Afghans live in remote rural communities where the Taliban now has a significant base of support. Controlling a growing Taliban insurgency across this vast countryside will be impossible with just 58,000 American soldiers. Our NATO allies are showing no stomach for this fight, and the Afghans themselves are poorly equipped to help. In contrast to the current situation in Iraq, America has not been able to train up a significant local army and police force to support security operations. Also in contrast to Iraq, the insurgency in Afghanistan has a sanctuary available across the border in Pakistan. "Afghanistan is not Iraq," says one former Afghan interior minister: "It is the theme park of problems."
Furthermore, foreign occupiers wear out their welcome quickly in Afghanistan. Ask the Russians. Recall that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 seeking to protect a threatened client regime, but an armed resistance quickly rose up calling itself the mujahideen. One outsider who aided this resistance force was a wealthy Saudi named Osama bin Laden. Our CIA supported the mujahideen as well. Russian troop strength was eventually increased up to 108,000, and vigorous offensive actions were launched in the countryside, but control could never be established. The effort became a moral and political calamity. Over a decade 13,000 Soviet troops were lost, more than 1 million Afghans were killed, and roughly 5 million Afghans fled to Pakistan or Iran. Afghanistan came to be known as "Russia’s Vietnam." In 1989 the last Soviet troops departed in humiliating defeat, and soon thereafter the Soviet Union itself collapsed.
Even if your planned escalation against the Taliban manages to avoid a replay of the Soviet experience, it will gain you little or nothing in the war against international terror. This is because the Taliban have neither the intent nor the capability to engage in significant terror actions against the United States outside of Afghanistan itself. Our terror target should be Al Qaeda, but they are now of course based inside Pakistan. Only the government of Pakistan is positioned to deal them a mortal blow, and accomplishing that goal should be your priority, but your influence in Pakistan will decline if you escalate the fighting in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s army and its intelligence services suspect the United States of working in Afghanistan with India to take away Pakistan's means to defend itself in depth, should there be another Indo-Pak war (the chances of which have just increased, following the latest attack launched from Pakistan into Mumbai). This perception of an Indo-American threat will intensify following a U.S. escalation in Afghanistan, and you will find your influence in Pakistan has been diminished.
If the goal is to weaken international terrorists, escalating in Afghanistan today makes almost as little sense as George Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. An escalation in Afghanistan would inevitably bring more civilian casualties, more anti-American resentment, and in the end more recruits to Islamist terror. Last August cannon fire from one of our AC-130 gunships killed dozens of civilians, and then in October a called-in air strike killed 25 to 30 civilians, including 18 women and children. This is not a war on terror; to Afghan civilians, it only creates terror.
I recommend for your transition-time reading a new report from the National Intelligence Council that suggests we reconsider the severity of the Al Qaeda terror threat. This report says Al Qaeda "may decay sooner" than was expected because it has alienated its Muslim supporters with its indiscriminate killing, and with its inattention to social problems such as poverty, unemployment, and education. America has a chance to defeat Al Qaeda by avoiding this mistake, by refocusing more of its efforts in the region on economic and social actions, less on air strikes.
If you decide instead to escalate in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda will be strengthened. The fighting in Afghanistan will become "Obama's War," and the great promise of your new administration in this region will be severely compromised.
Robert L. Paarlberg is the Betty F. Johnson Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and a Visiting Professor of Government at Harvard University.
This article first appeared in The Harvard Crimson, and is available online here.