Rethinking Military Escalation in Afghanistan

Source: Brave New Films

Why is our government sending an additional 30,000 US soldiers to Afghanistan?  So far, not even members of the Obama administration seem able to answer this question.  Last week, The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss had a chance to ask Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen why they’re pushing to double our troop presence in Afghanistan.  Both Gates and Mullen said that while they’re thinking about the war in Afghanistan in terms of a 3-5 year time frame, their immediate goals are unclear.  What’s more, a final decision has not been made yet to commit those additional brigades.

Like Dreyfuss says, the fact that a final decision hasn’t been made is key, because it opens the door slightly for a much-needed public debate about what 30,000 more soldiers can possibly achieve.  Some of the big questions that must be addressed include whether those extra troops alone will be able to secure a lasting peace for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States?  That seems highly unlikely, considering each military operation targeting insurgents-like the one yesterday that killed 15 militants and 16 innocent civilians (including two women and three children)-only fans the flame of Afghan fury toward the United States.

Just as important, we must ask how are we planning to pay for this escalation, considering our economic crisis at home and the fact that so much of this war has been paid with borrowed money.  And is committing tens of thousands more troops really the best way to help a war-torn nation with 40 percent unemployment and some 5 million people living below the poverty line?  Proponents of escalation like Karin von Hippel, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggest that 30,000 more troops will make a psychological impact.  But wouldn’t a more profound psychological impact come from to sending humanitarian aid, creating jobs, and getting Afghanistan away from what Secretary of State Clinton recently called a “narco state?”

Perhaps Andrew Bacevich, an international relations professor at Boston University, and author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, put it best in yesterday’s NY Times when he said,

“There’s clearly a consensus that things are heading in the wrong direction. What’s not clear to me is why sending 30,000 more troops is the essential step to changing that. My understanding of the larger objective of the allied enterprise in Afghanistan is to bring into existence something that looks like a modern cohesive Afghan state. Well, it could be that that’s an unrealistic objective. It could be that sending 30,000 more troops is throwing money and lives down a rat hole.”

Throwing money and lives down a rat hole is exactly what Derrick Crowe found on Daily Kos recently, when he did the math to figure out how many troops might actually be called for in Afghanistan.  Crowe points out that by the military’s own standards, a successful counterinsurgency could require 655,000 troops throughout Afghanistan, or, if the military simply wants to go after surge proponents like the 14 million Pashtuns, we’re still talking 230,000 troops.

If that’s the case, then why send 30,000 soldiers at all?  Is it to get us used to the idea that this is just the beginning of a long, drawn out, unwinnable quagmire of Vietnam proportions?  Vice President Biden has grimly assessed there will be “an uptick” in casualties from the initial military escalation in Afghanistan.  Already we have lost over 600 US soldiers-155 of which died in 2008 alone-to say nothing of the thousands of Afghan civilian casualties.  Imagine how many more will die in this “uptick.”  Imagine what escalation will cost on every level, and then let the debate begin to rethink a solution.