The Washington Post, May 25, 2010

A flawed strategy and a failed war in Afghanistan

Pentagon report last month revealed that only 29 of 121 critical Afghan districts could be classified as "sympathetic to the government," compared with 48 "supportive of or sympathetic to" the Taliban.

By Katrina vanden Heuvel

Speaking to graduating cadets at West Point on Saturday, President Obama noted the "ultimate sacrifice" of 78 of their predecessors who gave up their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he did not mention that just days before, five U.S. soldiers were killed in Kabul, bringing the toll of American dead in Afghanistan to over 1,000.

Cartoon by Khalil Bendib
Cartoon by Khalil Bendib ( )

As we pass this grim marker, the Obama administration's strategy in Afghanistan is foundering because it is fundamentally flawed. It lacks a clear, achievable mission, isn't in our national security interest and costs too much in treasure and lives.

The counterinsurgency strategy to win the hearts and minds of Afghans is failing -- a Pentagon report last month ( ) revealed that only 29 of 121 critical Afghan districts could be classified as "sympathetic to the government," compared with 48 "supportive of or sympathetic to" the Taliban. The number of Afghans who rated U.S. and NATO troops "good" or "very good" dropped from 38 percent in December to 29 percent in March -- perhaps as a result of the civilian casualties that are on the rise.

There is a sense of Taliban momentum -- even Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently declared, "Nobody is winning," and military officials are now minimizing expectations for the upcoming Kandahar offensive. The highly touted operation in Marja that began three months ago has failed to dislodge the Taliban.

The continued occupation of a fiercely independent and tribal Afghanistan -- as well as the death of tens of thousands of civilians -- engenders anti-Americanism ( ) and fuels terrorist recruitment. Military operations have also pushed violent jihadists across the border and further destabilized a nuclear-armed Pakistan -- a far greater threat to our national security than any tenuous al-Qaeda "safe haven" in Afghanistan.

Finally, focusing so many resources on Afghanistan -- where al-Qaeda is now minimally present -- diverts vital resources from other urgent security needs, including economic recovery at home. For the first time, the monthly cost of the war in Afghanistan ( ) exceeds what we spend in Iraq -- $6.7 billion per month, compared with $5.5 billion in Iraq. At the end of May, appropriations for both wars will reach over $1 trillion -- mostly borrowed money that we're not investing at home. Upcoming congressional hearings on veterans care will demonstrate the human costs. No wonder a majority of Americans -- 52 percent -- believe the war "is not worth its costs," according to a recent Washington Post poll.

A long-overdue alternative strategy begins with a responsible withdrawal of U.S. troops and support for a regional diplomatic solution, including talks with the Taliban, which Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants to pursue and America should support unconditionally. It also includes common-sense counterterrorism measures, intelligence sharing and targeted development and reconstruction assistance.

The president is instead asking for another $32 billion for the Afghanistan surge in a supplemental appropriation that is expected to be voted on in the Senate this week, with a House vote to follow.

But there are signs of a growing opposition. Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have introduced legislation demanding an exit strategy ( ) and a timetable for withdrawal, and Feingold announced that he will introduce an amendment to the supplemental based on that legislation.

The House bill has 91 co-sponsors. A strong showing in the House -- where the amendment would probably receive more than 130 votes -- will demonstrate to the president that there is increasing concern in Congress and throughout the country about the danger of an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan. Even though Obama said he will begin withdrawing troops in July 2011, that is a tentative date at best -- and perhaps just the beginning of the kind of very slow withdrawal we see now in Iraq.

Vietnam and Iraq both demonstrated how easy it is to get into war and how difficult it is to get out. We now see that dilemma in Afghanistan. Withdrawal will demand a huge political lift and may well lead to the question, "What were the last eight years of lost blood and treasure about?"

Confronting that question honestly is far less costly than continuing a flawed strategy and a failed war.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.

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