Aug 20, 2009

Afghanistan the Good Fight - USA Today Editorial

As Afghanistan Votes, Americans’ Resolve Fades
Obama sets right goal, but can he sustain the necessary commitment?

USA Today
August 20, 2009

As Afghans go to the polls today, two immediate questions hang in the air. Will Taliban threats to bomb polling places and cut off the fingers of voters keep many away? And will President Hamid Karzai get the 50% needed to avoid a second round runoff?

But the far larger worry is whether U.S. and NATO involvement in Afghanistan, long known as the "graveyard of empires," can still succeed — and whether the United States has the staying power to find out.

Almost eight years after the 9/11 attacks — which spurred the U.S. to invade Afghanistan, wipe out Osama bin Laden's training camps and depose the Taliban government that harbored bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror network — initial success has turned to deteriorating mess.

Attacks by a revitalized Taliban have increased dramatically. In the lead-up to the presidential election, it has staged a series of bombings. Earlier this month, the new U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said the Taliban has gained the upper hand.

As the Taliban grows bolder, U.S. involvement is deepening and losses are mounting. An extra 21,000 troops were recently added; the total is expected to reach a record 68,000 by the end of this year. Forty-four U.S. troops were killed in July, the most of any month of the war.
Karzai, the nation's U.S.-backed leader since late 2001, does not have control over much of the country. Warlords are making a comeback. Corruption is rampant; so is the opium trade. Women's rights are backsliding, as evidenced by a new law allowing husbands to starve their wives if they refuse to have sex with them. Large swaths of the country are gripped by violence and uncertainty.

President Obama, who inherited this worsening situation, vigorously asserted again this week that the war must be won as matter of self-defense, and he has framed the right objective: to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda" in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, where terrorist leaders and their Taliban allies have regrouped and bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

Beyond committing more troops, the new administration has taken several steps to change course in Afghanistan. Obama appointed veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke to oversee the region and replaced the more conventional top commander, Gen. David McKiernan, with McChrystal, who is seen as more inclined to work on a local level to forge creative on-the-ground solutions. The administration is working with NATO partners to provide better security to villagers, rather than simply hunt down Taliban fighters.

All well and good. Despite the urgency Obama attaches to the mission, however, it still is not clear how many troops will be needed, how long success might take and what, ultimately, it will look like. In the past from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq such lack of clarity and all-out commitment have proved to be a hazardous course. Years of stalemate drain the will to fight, a phenomenon that already appears to be developing in Afghanistan.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 51% of Americans say the war in
Afghanistan isn't worth fighting, and just 24% support sending more troops. European allies are skittish about deeper involvement; even in Britain, a public backlash is growing as casualties mount. Meanwhile, stress on the troops is high after years of war in two countries.

Yet counterinsurgency actions typically take more than a decade to succeed, according to a RAND Corp. report. It is a difficult trap. McChrystal is completing a review, and the sooner, the better.

If the war is to be won, support will have to be revitalized and adequate force committed for whatever strategy emerges. Today's election will be a key test of what needs to be done for the U.S. and NATO to help Afghans build a stable, reasonably representative government that does not harbor terrorists. The Taliban's threat to maim those who vote provides a clarifying moment, in an often murky conflict, about who the bad guys are and what the stakes are.

Perhaps the turnout will mark a repudiation of the Taliban's medieval barbarity. Perhaps the Afghan war, as badly as it has been going, can still be turned around. The question is whether Obama can come up with a strategy that persuades Americans and their allies to commit sufficient time, effort and resources to find out the answer.

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