President Obama's escalation in Afghanistan: unrealistic and costly

 In Afghanistan, Alternatives to War

Photo courtesy of the New York Times

We have known for some time that President Obama was likely to escalate the war in Afghanistan, with rampant speculation about the details. While there were not many surprises in his general justification for sending an additional 30,000 troops, the speech was long on the eloquence we expect from President Obama and short on substance.  President Obama failed to lay out a comprehensive strategy, a vision for success and a clear explanation for how an increase in troops will get us to a clearly defined end point. Some of the key problems in President Obama’s proposed plan:

30,000 troops will not address the threat from Al Qaeda. Throughout the speech, the main justification President Obama offered for his decision to send additional troops was the threat from Al Qaeda, and he fell back on some typical fear mongering rhetoric to make what amounted to a weak case. President Obama’s own staff acknowledge that there are approximately 100 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Do we need 1,000 American troops for each terrorist to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” Al Qaeda? Obama relied heavily on the idea of preventing a safe haven for Al Qaeda, a myth that has been debunked by many experts, including former deputy chief of the CIA counterterrorist center Paul Pillar, who noted in The Washington Post that “In the past couple of decades, international terrorist groups have thrived by exploiting globalization and information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens.” We are dealing with 21st century threats by non-state actors, and we can’t continue to rely on 20th century solutions.

History has proven that military force is highly ineffective when it comes to dealing with terrorist groups. The RAND Corporation reviewed all terrorist groups that ended in the last 40 years, and determined that only 7% were defeated by military force. Policing and intelligence and political reconciliation were far more useful, and they extrapolate from this information that the US should have a light military footprint in Afghanistan if any.

Escalation will backfire. Not only is sending additional troops unlikely to improve the situation on the ground, it could easily exacerbate the situation. Afghanistan expert Gilles Dorronsoro noted that the presence of foreign troops is the top factor in the resurgence of the Taliban, and recommended that “the best way to weaken, and perhaps divide, the armed opposition is to reduce military confrontations.” Rather than reducing the moment of the Taliban, the stated goal of President Obama’s policy, escalation will light a fire under a growing insurgency.

President Obama is correct in noting that the Taliban is not popular with the Afghan people, but the United States’ popularity is on the wane. In a poll in early 2009, just 18% of Afghans said the number of foreign forces should be increased. US intelligence reports this year noted that only about 10% of the insurgency is ideologically motivated Taliban; the majority are people fighting to repel foreign invaders or for economic gain. The US is adding fuel to the fire by aggressively pursuing insurgents who have no international agenda with an escalation of troops.

The date to begin withdrawal is a step in the right direction, but not far enough. I was pleasantly surprised that President Obama offered a specific date to begin withdrawal of US troops. However, there is a lot of wiggle room. The key phrase, one that we are too familiar with from the Bush years, is “conditions on the ground.” There was no indication of the vision of what Afghanistan would need to look like in order for the US to begin withdrawing troops. With that loose criteria, it is far too easy to delay a withdrawal based on the circumstances that are sure to be less than ideal. There was also no mention of the pace of withdrawal; a start date is only one small piece of the puzzle.

The bottom line is that this is a 50 percent increase in the number of troops on the ground. This increased commitment is sinking the US deeper into Afghanistan and making it even harder to extricate ourselves, even with the conditional date to begin withdrawal.

The civilian approach is being neglected. President Obama paid lip service to a civilian surge in Afghanistan, but there was little detail in what that will look like and what percentage of resources will be focused there. Counterinsurgency experts have argued that the ratio should include 80 percent political and 20 percent military. Thus far, we have seen approximately 90 percent of the resources focused on the military. Of the nonmilitary assistance, 56 percent of it has been funneled through the Department of Defense. We have not yet had an accounting of how many millions have been wasted through irresponsible contracting rather than investment in effective programs like the National Solidarity Program.

In a recent poll by Oxfam, seven out of ten Afghans said poverty and unemployment are to blame for war and conflict, the top choice coming out ahead of corruption and ineffectiveness of the government and the Taliban. If the US seriously wants to stabilize Afghanistan and build an “enduring partnership” with the Afghan people, our commitment to development needs to extend beyond rhetoric.

It’s unrealistic to base a strategy on a partnership with a reliable, non-corrupt Afghan government. President Obama acknowledged that the Afghan election was marred by fraud, but settled for the idea that Karzai’s presidency conforms to the laws of Afghanistan (other than whatever ones he might have broken in the course of electoral fraud?). General McChrystal’s leaked report contended that the strategy was contingent upon being seen as a guest of the Afghan government and its people. If the US plans to only work with agencies that effectively combat corruption, they might as well pack up and go home now. The election was widely considered a joke inside and outside of Afghanistan.

No one in the administration has laid out a clear plan for combating corruption in Afghanistan and building buy-in with the current government. Can we really send more soldiers to die and spend more tax dollars on behalf of an illegitimate and incompetent regime?

An escalation will be far too costly in money and lives without a real path to success. President Obama noted that the escalation in Afghanistan is slated to cost $30 billion dollars per year, on top of more than $200 billion that has already been spent. This occurs in the midst of the worst financial crisis we have seen in years, and a battle to get Congress to shell out money to insure millions of Americans who don’t have access to health care. Cost estimates tend to be left in the dust by reality, and President Obama is likely to renege on his pledge to avoid funding the war through supplementals that lack the accountability of the regular budget process. Some members of Congress have attempted to address this through proposing a surtax to fund the war, but you don’t achieve fiscal responsibility by raising taxes to pay for an irresponsible foreign policy.

Addressing cadets at West Point, Obama acknowledged the burden that the war in Afghanistan put on them, but despite that he is willing to risk their lives for a strategy that I can’t believe he truly thinks will work. Since his initial “surge” earlier this year, 2009 has become the deadliest year of the war for US troops, with a month still to go. As Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) pointed out in a recent piece, 1,000 US troops have been wounded in the last 3 months, one quarter of US casualties in the Afghanistan war: “Think about it. The war has been going on for 97 months in Afghanistan, and one-fourth of all the casualties have been suffered in just the past three months.” The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked President Obama to only send troops to Afghanistan that had had one year of leave between deployments because of the record-high suicide rate in the active duty military.

The UN also reported a rise in civilian casualties in 2009 compared to the previous year. Thousands of Afghans have been plunged further into poverty and despair because of the effects of occupation, and Pakistanis face increased danger since President Obama has ramped up the drone strikes in the Pakistani border region. These costs will only rise with the addition of troops, and the Obama administration has not offered a sufficient justification for these costs.

There are alternatives that were not a part of the review process. Like many people, I was glad to see President Obama take his time on the Afghanistan decision and entertain a variety of approaches. However, there was nothing in any reports on the process that indicated the administration considered any plans to put nonmilitary tools at the forefront and fully vetted them. In his speech, Obama engaged in a straw man argument, characterizing people who oppose the war as parroting the sound bite that Afghanistan equals Vietnam and thus we must pull out immediately. There are ample, well-considered alternatives that are based on a realistic assessment on the ground and a more efficient investment of our tax dollars. The Congressional Progressive Caucus outlined elements of a new plan in their recent letter to Obama. In our policy agenda Strategic Cooperation, we laid out key aspects of an alternative approach including policing and intelligence; regional diplomacy, internal political reconciliation; and effective Afghan-led development.

After eight years of failure, it’s clear we need a new approach in Afghanistan. The Obama administration owes the American people a comprehensive plan that takes into account the realities on the ground and the limitations of military force.

It is easy to feel disheartened at this point, especially for those of us who have been actively opposing the war or who helped get Barack Obama elected with the hope that he would chart a new course in our foreign policy. Despite this setback, I feel we have reasons to believe we are having an impact and there is momentum behind us. The mere fact that President Obama mentioned an exit strategy and defended the idea from critics is a testament to the power of the political pressure we have exerted on the administration and Congress. We have put our government on notice, and we need to keep fighting. The voices of dissent in Congress are getting louder, largely because of pressure from their constituents, and the opposition has spread far beyond the usual suspects.

I am humbled and inspired by the commitment of activists around this country who are steadfastly working to build a brighter future and promote a new vision for our foreign policy. We have to show that we will not go away; now we must redouble our efforts. Please take a moment to call your representative today at 1-800-427-8619 and urge him or her to speak out forcefully for a new approach.

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Showing 21 comments
  • Joy Gault

    I wish Obama would read this and answer why he wasn’t listening to those who do not want any more killing . What I don’t Understand is Why Did we push the Russian’s out? Afghanistan has never been a nation or peaceful.

  • Serwind Netzler

    Excellent analysis! Suggest you also read Thomas Friedman’s opinion piece in 2 December issue of the New York Times:

  • Keir Campbell

    Well, this a rather sophomoric attempt at analysis. Where is the discussion of Pakistan and the safe havens for Al Qaeda. The Taliban both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The tribal regions. The role of the Pakistan ISI, the current crisis in the Pakistan government and the role of India. The nuclear weapons? In the late 1980’s the United States (which assisted in the creation of Al Qaeda along with the ISI) removed itself from this same region after the Soviet occupation. We all know how ignoring the problem of civil war and the rise of the Taliban turned out. So what is your plan? Nation Building? How do you plan to do that without protection? We could just repeat our actions of the 1990’s and leave. Good Luck. I suggest we support this plan and demand the the 2011 date be met for the the removal of forces.

    • Lee Ann

      Keir, The US did not get out of Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. It subsidized the war lord insurgents fighting the Soviets. And guess what? Those folks are still insurgents, now fighting us.

      When will the US learn that traditional warfare does not defeat insurgents or guerilla warfare. We seemed to know that when we fought our own Reveolutionary War and managed to defeat the highly efficient, well-funded British army using what were traditional army tactics at the time.

      Underfunded, rag-tag opposition groups know that they can defeat empire armies by using non-traditional, “insurgent” fighting tactics. We are doomed in Afghanistan, and any student of war history should know that.

  • Serwind Netzler

    Would you suggest we invade Pakistan too?

    I challenge anyone to find an example of any foreign power in history “winning” in Afghanistan. What hubris on the part of our elected leaders to assume we can “win”.

  • starfleet1

    50,000 additional troops is what I would have recommended, however I agree with all else mentioned in your blog. Then I would recommend a direct civilian liasion with local pasha’s and warlords. Civilian infrastructure leading to economic development and financial independence for all in a 21st century economy would be the optimal option for Afghanistan. Ranging from the construction of cell phone towers, local electrical gemnerating facilities, free medical & dental clinics, hospitals and schools, backed by local police forces and judiciary free from corruption and with a morals and values sytem emphasizing equal opportunity for school, work, voting, property ownership, et al for women and girls as well as men et al, the infrastructure requirement is a necessity for Afghanistan’s future peace and economic growth. But this can only be accomplished through strong military and strong, non-corrupt local police. The security element both at the local and state level can not be overlooked.

  • Keir Campbell

    We already have.

    We won’t win, the plan is to stabilize and leave, you were not paying attention.

  • Serwind Netzler

    Stabilize what? A corrupt, illegitimate government in Kabul? A non-existent government elsewhere throughout the country?

  • Rebecca Griffin

    Keir, I’m not sure that you thoroughly read what is here or looked at any of the links. As I point out, the safe haven idea is a myth. Terrorists are non-state actors that do not need to rely on a physical location. Much of the planning for the 9/11 attacks was carried out in Germany and the US. Occupation is not a viable solution to dealing with threats of terrorism, and there are other options as the RAND report points out.

    The alternative is not just “nation-building,” a somewhat hollow phrase that has taken on a pejorative connotation. The alternative ideas that you can read in my link include smart use of policing and intelligence for counterterrorism; diplomacy with regional stakeholders; internal political reconciliation; and investment in Afghan-led development projects that take place at the local level.

  • kara j lincoln

    Thank you folks,

    what can be with awareness is:. networking simple exchanges of differentiating issues, prioritizing ecological sustainability based on 1 science for the public. this means no one gains with exploitation.. no one leads accept to share networking.. each self-express the long over due venting needed, reflecting with those living simple lives `boon with the natural world.

    this means no grid as in US of some pushing in efficient science with agendas + elsewhere in world. rather this is gripping the moment – uniting with neighbor to better safety, heads together to obtain fresh war, obtain organic seed to plant in attempts to keep the small farm/garden. not science of monoculture, pesticide, GMO, solar Al Gore credit exchanges – this is bad science that we don’t want pushed on any, it’s messed up us which we yet to stop. + Miguel Altieri can tell us story of how bad our planetary food issue is, that has already triggered negative effects standing in the way of self-reliance.

    if aware, take part in our moment + network now with whatever means we have + open to our ability to sharpen our sensors. this allows all humans, yes our human family to sharpen the dull sensors built from misuse, over so much interference. whether a label on one or not, it is the weakest that still gets triggered to attempt to survive in the programmed ways they know best. + it is here we can put out support, + exchange to those able to do walkabout + reach out to more in a calm state, so our efforts can `boon with theirs.

    building networks so folks can reflect with real energy + obtain harmony. not from a story of the past but maintain discipline over our self-sensory observation + put effort into the moment, creating, pooling resources, so as to not allow bad science, rather.

    folks lets take our energy now, pool our effort + let them tell us more of how to rid their needs, rather then give them what we think which is less efficient.. let Al Quaida, Taliban, Afghan, Pakistan, India, ISI, all be allowed to self-express in a platform, rather then be treated as animals. we are a human family + can support healing vs. ongoingly triggering wounds in those unable to heal.

    where are their stories, channels open now so we can aid input to efficiently unite as a responsible local, global + beyond participant. for to think any entity can solve this on own, you are wrong + being blind. we need to pool together + all give an exchange: reflect for folks to get free of chasing their head in attempts to survive + become whole, sharpening sensors to receive the energy now we all have available, so as to rethink who we following, what science agenda + get free of anyone + connect within the natural world + then we have the ability to perceive what is + act upon it.

    not a religious story of past, not industrialized fueling forces of delusion wanting to be westernized, etc. now give us feedback, holding people accountable so we can do within our reach. folks we can organize but not let shallow agenda lead us, rather respect each other + listen, stand back or correct. we don’t want to misuse unknowingly, + it is our networking that can give us true reflection to act or not.

    peace is an option if we network it now. please stay in the moment + let go of what was. for look at our US twisted policy that took part in creating it along with the rest of the world. we have now tools to inner-personally self-adjust + network, stating this was wrong, with compassion, this is efficient, + let them take home what works for their eco-system, etc.

    this is all we need. together we will find solution as long as we have this platform to do an open exchange, with goodness + truth.

    Peace Action West, thank you for all your work, you have connections, let’s hear from them now, please choose them to represent local cooperatives. so we can go beyond + each offer exchange along with the 30k troop, + see what we can do before they even go.

    let’s go beyond debating in a dysfunctional entity as in our government, which we also are trying to build, where we fragment. we can only do so much until we make it a working tool where we can all interrelate with 1 public truth, within real time, within our ecological boundaries. to allow us to self-sustain. we can make democracy if folks are online that we are trying to, not do for but to network until all can self-sustain; this is what a human family does.

    the commitment to seriously get it together, other wise we just interfere in your ability to do it yourself. so I agree we should have no problem in speaking the truth vs. think another bad person will await our removal, fck that mindset for paranoia. the world offers us greatness + to live local is the responsible way. + network so all share this planet + beyond in peace, this is our human potential to live with mental clarity + physical strength in harmony with all species.

    any thing else you are ill, please self-observe, reflect + adjust, for we need all to make peace now to aid in those that have struggled too long, where the industrialized people have used our earth for hunting/play grounds/natural resources, etc. not really giving a hoot because they where programmed in what they doing, not realizing the negative effect left for others to self-develop vs. be subservient, enslaved, etc.. but we do care + want equality with our family, meaning all species. for we are a living organism + we can co_evolve together + are dependent on our natural world.. the sooner we learn this the healthier we will be.

    we don’t have to accept anything less than harmony, + for those that don’t have this freedom, we attempt to network + share it, for we all have our inner-personal tools to take control of our own energy + can self-empower ASAP. start with a self-massage + enjoy being alive.

    peace, kara

  • Mike Havenar

    I disagree that the civilian component is “being neglected.” Twenty thousand civilian technicians etc. is more than “lip service.” Stop letting your dogma blind you; you are parroting old attitudes which never seem to undergo scrutiny once you’ve adopted them.

  • Lee Ann

    Keir, Thanks for the link to the Huffington Post story. I learned a lot about the history of the area and found it interesting to read her comparison between Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia rather than Afghanistan and Vietnam.

    • Jeeffrey

      Humans were never meant to bring each other happiness. From the mmeont we are thrown into this world, we bring each other nothing but pain and misery. -Psycho Mantis AKA Barack Obama.

  • Rebecca Griffin

    Mike, there are ample reports that the civilian tools are not being adequately resourced or completing effective projects. The supplemental funding for the war in Afghanistan passed this year spent 90% on military tools and only 10% on nonmilitary (and even many of those are carried out ineffectively by the military rather than civilians). You can see the lack of progress in the poll of Afghans that I cited and the statistics that show that Afghanistan is currently the worst place for a child to be born in the world. I recommend reading this article about Jeffrey Sachs to learn more about how the “civilian surge” is not receiving adequate focus.

  • Rebecca Griffin

    As a follow up, this article notes that there are going to be approximately 1,000 civilians on the ground in Afghanistan by the beginning of the next year, nowhere near 20,000 or the 100,000 troop number. And this is after an increase over what they have now.

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