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Rethinking Afghanistan

Author: Greg Bruno
September 1, 2009

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From the start of his presidency, Barack Obama has promised more troops for Afghanistan and called for a new direction in the way the conflict is being waged. This week, his top commander laid the groundwork for a new military strategy (VOA), which could see thousands of additional forces (WSJ) deployed to the theater on top of the 68,000 already assigned. Yet analysts remain deeply divided on the Afghan war over basic points: Is it winnable? And if so, is it worth fighting?

President Obama has stressed that U.S. interests lie in stabilizing Afghanistan and ensuring the country never again becomes a safe haven for al-Qaeda militants. But a growing chorus of military and non-military experts say success in Afghanistan is far from certain -- regardless of what resources are pumped in. Some analysts say if not handled carefully, the Afghan war risks becoming Obama's Vietnam (NYT). Even with the right strategy and resources, the Afghan campaign won't be close to victory in the next twelve to eighteen months, cautions Bruce Riedel, who chaired Obama's Afghan-Pakistan policy review in the spring. He told a Brookings Institution panel on August 25 that the president inherited a war that was an under-resourced "disaster" (PDF).

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, in presenting his strategy review on August 31, said in a statement "success is achievable," although the "situation in Afghanistan is serious." The general's report, which is not expected to be made public, reportedly recommends placing more troops in populated areas (NPR), as opposed to pursuing insurgents into remote valleys and mountains. The general's revised strategy is also believed to call for expanded efforts to train the Afghan military and police; better measures to counter opium poppy cultivation; and beefed-up civilian commitments (Reuters).

Yet pessimism in some quarters is growing. Allegations of fraud and vote-rigging have tainted the country's August 20 presidential vote, raising prospects for sectarian violence in any power vacuum. The electoral crisis also follows mounting security challenges, especially in southern Taliban strongholds (TIME). Overall, 2009 has been the deadliest year for U.S. troops since the war began, with 182 killed so far. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, in Joint Forces Quarterly, says the enemy in Afghanistan is doing a better job than the coalition providing stability and support (PDF) to the Afghan population.

Some analysts say turning the tide will only come by upping the ante, as McChrystal's review suggests. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who served on the assessment group that advised McChrystal on strategy, warns that while adding resources will not guarantee victory, failing to do so will surely lead to defeat (WashPost). Stephen Biddle, CFR's Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, who served in the same assessment group, tells CBS News that protecting the public is vital to a successful counterinsurgency campaign and in a country as large as Afghanistan, that "requires a lot of people." But Maj. Jeremy Kotkin, an officer working for U.S. Special Operations Command, writes that from his vantage point, all attempts to justify continued engagement in Afghanistan fall flat (PDF). Washington Post columnist George F. Will, in a piece recommending a substantial drawdown of U.S. ground troops, writes that genius is "knowing when to stop."

Additional Analysis

In Foreign Policy, political risk consultant Hillary Mann Leverett looks at Afghan military commander Mohammad Qasim Fahim's consolidation of power, and says the United States cannot count on an Afghan military led by Fahim.

Additional Resources

In a Washington Post roundup, six experts - John Nagl, Thomas H. Johnson, Andrew J. Bacevich, Erin M. Simpson, Clint Douglas, and Danielle Pletka -- examine whether the war is worth fighting.

In a new report, the International Crisis Group warns that more attention must be paid to Afghanistan's refugee population.

Thomas Ruttig, writing on behalf of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, explores the causes of the Afghanistan insurgency.

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