My mixed feelings about the war in Afghanistan.

Military analysis.
Nov. 30 2009 12:50 PM

Confessions of an Uncertain Columnist

My mixed feelings about the war in Afghanistan.

US Marines of 2nd Battalion 2 Marines of 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade walk back to their base in Afghanistan. Click image to expand.
Soldiers in Afghanistan

Columnists are supposed to have firm views and express them with steadfast certainty. Since I write a column called "War Stories," the least a reader might expect from me is a clear opinion on whether the United States should escalate or pull out of the war in Afghanistan.

Recently, a friend told me that he couldn't quite figure out where I stood on the issue. I replied that I couldn't quite figure it out, either.

My columns, I confess, have hedged, hemmed, and hawed around the question. When I've proposed or endorsed a specific strategy, I've carefully noted that it's an approach the president should take if he decides to deepen U.S. involvement in the war. Sometimes, I've ended the piece with a caveat or a pointed question that suggests deeper involvement might not be such a good idea. Yet I've stopped short of taking a stance on whether he should or shouldn't send more troops or whether doing so is or isn't a good idea.

That's because, when it comes to this war, I am the one thing that a columnist probably shouldn't be—ambivalent. I've studied all the pros and cons. There are valid arguments to justify each side of the issue, and there are still more valid arguments to slap each side down. And if the basic decision were left up to me, I'm not sure what I would do.

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As with confronting most messes in life, the initial impulse is to flee. But if we simply pulled out, it's a near-certain bet that the Taliban would march into Kabul, and most other Afghan towns they'd care to, in a matter of weeks. True, the Taliban are not the same as al-Qaida, but there's little doubt that they would provide sanctuary and alliance (as they did after the Soviets were ousted), and this would strengthen al-Qaida in its struggle against Pakistan, the United States, and others.

One might dispute the significance of this, at least for its direct danger to the United States. Al-Qaida, after all, can plan attacks on U.S. territory from other sanctuaries, even from apartments in Western cities. But it's naive to claim that leaving Afghanistan would have no broader effect.

Another problem with withdrawing is that it would signal, correctly or not, a huge victory for anti-American forces generally. If we left Afghanistan to the Taliban (and, by extension, al-Qaida), especially after such a prolonged commitment (at least rhetorically), what other embattled people would trust the United States (or the other putative allies in this war) to come in and protect them from insurgents? None, and they could hardly be blamed.

I am uncomfortable making this case for two reasons. First, it's reminiscent of the bankrupt rationales, involving "credibility" and the "domino theory," for staying in Vietnam long after that war was widely viewed as a horrible mistake. But Afghanistan is different. The Taliban are not the Viet Cong, and Osama Bin Laden is not Ho Chi Minh; there is no case, this time, that the enemy has a just claim to power. And the stakes are much higher: Communists ruling South Vietnam was never a serious threat to our security; al-Qaida controlling a huge swath of South Asia is.

The second reason I'm uncomfortable about even saying this is that the argument can, and almost certainly will, be used to justify staying in Afghanistan if it turns out that this war is futile, too. It's easy to hear the generals saying, a year from now, "Three more brigades should do the trick, Mr. President" and "If we pull out now, Mr. President, our credibility will be severely compromised."

But this part of the argument is moot, since, for better or for worse, no higher-ups in the Obama administration have advocated a total pullout. Withdrawal is a tempting option only to the extent that all others seem, at best, only slightly less miserable.

Holding at the current level of troops, with perhaps some slight rejiggering, is another tempting option, but it's also the clearest recipe for war without end. The constant refrain one hears from soldiers and commanders in the field—confirmed by any journalist who spends much time with them—is that they're strained by the shortage of resources. No matter what strategy President Barack Obama decides on—chasing terrorists, protecting population centers, or some combination of the two—there aren't enough troops now to pursue it with much chance of success.

The existing troops can probably hold the Taliban at bay and keep Afghanistan from falling apart, but little more than that. The war then becomes a contest of endurance, and we're not likely to win. (Yes, lots of American troops stayed in West Germany and South Korea for several decades—some remain there still—but they were deterring wars, not fighting and dying in one.)

As for fighting from afar: With a mix of special-operations forces and airstrikes, it's appealing in the abstract, but it neglects the mundane realities of warfare—that you need good intelligence to know who and where the bad guys are, and that to get good intelligence you need troops on the ground, and more than a handful of commandos, to cultivate and earn the local people's trust.

The proposal made a few months ago by Sen. Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to focus more on training than on fighting—and to send no more U.S. troops until the Afghan army has grown substantially—makes sense. Earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that enlarging the Afghan army was the key to success (and to America's exit). In March, when Obama ordered another 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, Gates assigned 4,000 of them—the 4th brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, a highly decorated combat unit—specifically to train Afghan soldiers.

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