After churning on for months, the debate over what the US and its allies should do in Afghanistan seems to have solidified into three arguments:
• Get out: Afghanistan was a graveyard for the British in the 19th century, for the Russians in the 20th century and is not worth the cost to the US in blood and treasure in the 21st century. Threats by al-Qaeda terrorists can be met closer to home.
• Go all-in: A retreat from Afghanistan would damage US standing as the world’s most powerful nation and therefore it should pour in troops, arms and money to defeat the terrorists and insurgents and establish a viable government in Kabul.
• Either get out or go all-in, but don’t seek halfway measures that are likely to fail, as in Vietnam where the US tried to win a limited war with troops operating under restrictive rules of engagement and where the US gave ineffective aid to the South Vietnamese government.
These arguments, or variations of them, are being made before US President Barack Obama and will confront him with a stark choice that could make or break his presidency. Obama has said the conflict in Afghanistan is “a war of necessity,” not a “war of choice.”
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said on TV after Obama’s meeting with his key advisors last week that it would take several weeks before a decision was made.
“I would remind you,” he said, “that the [former US president George W.] Bush administration, when they were deliberating whether or not to surge forces into Iraq, took about three months to come to that conclusion.”
The latest poll by the reputable Pew Research Center shows that US support for keeping troops in Afghanistan has slipped to 50 percent, with 43 percent saying the troops should be removed. Republicans favor keeping troops in Afghanistan, Democrats removing them and independents almost exactly mirror the overall public position.
The US commanding officer in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has delivered his assessment to Obama and summarized it to an audience in London last week.
“The situation is serious, and I choose that word very carefully. I would add that neither success nor failure for our endeavor in support of the Afghan people and government can be taken for granted. My assessment and my best military judgment is that the situation is, in some ways, deteriorating, but not in all ways,” he said.
McChrystal pointed to the construction of roads, provision of clean water, access to healthcare, children in school and access to education for women.
He added, however: “A tremendous number of villagers live in fear, and there are officials who either cannot or do not serve their people effectively. Violence is on the increase.”
“We need to reverse the current trends, and time does matter. Waiting does not prolong a favorable outcome. This effort will not remain winnable indefinitely and nor will public support,” he said.
“The cruel irony,” he concluded, “is that, in order to succeed, we need patience, discipline, resolve and time.”
Two columnists in the New York Times reflected the split in the US over Afghanistan. David Brooks, a moderate conservative, wrote that there are “realistic choices for America’s Afghanistan policy — all out or all in, surrender the place to the Taliban or do armed nation-building. And we might as well acknowledge that it’s not an easy call. The costs and rewards are tightly balanced.”
The next day, Bob Herbert, a liberal, wrote: “Americans are tired of the war.”
“After the long, sad experience in Iraq, and the worst economic shock since the Depression, they are not up for extended combat and endless nation-building in Afghanistan,” he said.
He urged the president to “start bringing the weary troops home.”
Richard Halloran is a freelance writer based in Hawaii.
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