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The Cost of Commitment in Afghanistan

Author: Greg Bruno
October 8, 2009


As U.S. President Barack Obama ponders whether to commit additional forces to the Afghan war or--as some congressional Democrats are urging (Politico)--remain open to other options, the debate appears to be dividing U.S. military and civilian leaders (WashPost). While commanders in Afghanistan have requested more troops to partner with and to protect the Afghan public--key tenets of a counterinsurgency fight--members of President Obama's national security team are advocating a narrowly focused counterterrorism campaign to root out insurgents from afar.

President Obama has sought to reassure lawmakers that, no matter how the United States moves forward, Washington remains in Afghanistan for the long haul. During a ninety-minute bipartisan briefing at the White House on October 6, the eve of the war's eight-year anniversary, the president sought to "dispense with the straw man argument" (NYT) that the debate is about "either doubling down or leaving Afghanistan." Reports following the meeting suggest the president is pondering adding up to 10,000 additional troops (Times of London) to the 68,000 already authorized, far short of the top-tier request of 40,000 reportedly requested by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal, meanwhile, has been public in his belief that the clock is ticking on a war effort adrift in violence (PDF) and soon to become America's longest. "This effort will not remain winnable indefinitely (PDF), and nor will public support," the general told a gathering of military strategists in London on October 1.

Opinion surveys show Americans are increasingly pessimistic on the odds of success; nearly one-third believe U.S. troops should be gone within a year (NYT). But beyond American resolve are deeper concerns over Afghan capabilities. Politics in the war-shattered nation are riddled with controversial characters (Times of London), and Afghanistan's central government--hobbled by massive claims of electoral fraud--is widely seen as ineffective. Peter W. Galbraith, who was fired from his post as the UN's deputy special representative in Afghanistan over a disagreement on how the UN should respond to Afghan electoral fraud, says nearly one-third of votes cast for President Hamid Karzai in the August 20 presidential balloting were fraudulent (WashPost).

President Obama has so far offered few hints on his strategic thinking, but disparate gears of government are already in motion. McChrystal, for one, is preparing to redeploy forces (CSMonitor) from rural outposts to urban centers. The president's national security team is seeking to recast al-Qaeda in Pakistan as the principle threat, downplaying the Afghan Taliban's ability to directly target the United States. Boston University's Andrew Bacevich says this assessment is sound; given Afghanistan's limited strategic importance to the United States, a more limited counterterrorist approach (News Hour) could work. But Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert at New America Foundation, says that "if U.S. forces were not in Afghanistan," the Taliban would return to Kabul "within 24 hours," al-Qaeda in tow. And that scenario, Bergen says, could pose a long-term challenge to American national security.

Meanwhile, the Taliban continues to prove its ability to strike in Kabul, claiming responsibility for today's deadly bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul. It was the second attack at that embassy in two years; the previous one was tied by U.S. authorities to Pakistani intelligence officers and Pakistani-based Taliban. No such links have been made in connection with the latest bombing.

Additional Analysis

J. Alexander Thier, director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says what's needed now is a new multinational civilian effort ( in Afghanistan.

CFR President Richard N. Haass discusses why Afghanistan has become a war of choice, not a war of necessity.

Six experts offer their views on the way ahead in Afghanistan.

Background Material

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's initial assessment of the war suggests more U.S. troops are needed to wage a successful counterinsurgency campaign.

PBS' FRONTLINE explores the operational challenges facing the military in "Obama's War."

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