Pro & Con: Is Obama’s troop surge the right policy in Afghanistan?

YES. The U.S. needs more troops to secure population centers and oust the Taliban.

By Max Boot

President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy raises some serious questions, but to see why it has a decent chance of working, it helps to visit the town of Nawa in southern Afghanistan. I was there in October and found that 1,000 Marines who had arrived during the summer already had made substantial strides.

When the Marines got there, Nawa was a ghost town.

“It was strangled by the Taliban,” Lt. Col. William McCollough, the boyish commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, told me. “Anyone who was here was beaten, taxed, intimidated.”

The Marines provided security, and the town sprang back to life, with schools opening, shops doing a bustling business and trucks bringing in goods. The residents of Nawa, like most Afghans, were happy to be free of the Taliban and their theocratic decrees.

But McCollough cautioned that the progress was as fragile as an eggshell. In particular, he worried about the dark pull exerted by Marjah, less than 10 miles away. A city of 50,000 people, Marjah has long been a haven of opium smugglers and insurgents who terrorize the surrounding area.

Commanders at Camp Leatherneck, the headquarters of 10,000 Marines operating in Helmand province, realize that it is essential to take Marjah, just as it was essential to take Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq. But they also know — or rather they knew when I visited — that they didn’t have enough infantry to achieve that objective. They were spread thin just trying to consolidate gains in towns such as Nawa.

Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan changes the equation. The first reinforcements will be Marines headed for Helmand — and a likely showdown in Marjah. There will be hard fighting ahead, just as there was last summer when Marines entered Nawa and other Taliban strongholds. But with enough resources and enough patience, there is little doubt that American troops and their Afghan allies will be able to secure key areas of southern Afghanistan that have slipped out of the government’s grasp.

The questions that remain unanswered after the president’s West Point address: Will the troops have the time and resources needed to win? “Win” is a word that Obama avoided. He cited his long-standing goal of “disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaida and its extremist allies,” but he spoke merely of his desire to “break the Taliban’s momentum” rather than defeat it altogether.

Nor did he endorse nation-building, even though the only way that Afghanistan will ever be secure is if we build a state capable of policing its own territory.

The most problematic part of Obama’s policy is his pledge to begin a withdrawal in July 2011. Getting 30,000 troops into Afghanistan is a difficult logistical challenge. It will be a major achievement if all of them are in place by July 2010. That will give them only a year to reverse many years of Taliban gains before their own numbers start to dwindle. That may or may not be sufficient. The “surge” in Iraq had a big impact within a year, but the United States had made a much bigger commitment to Iraq pre-surge than it has in Afghanistan.

The good part of the deadline is that it presumably means we will be spared another agonizing White House review for at least another year. That’s no small thing, given that Obama first unveiled an Afghan strategy on March 27, and less than six months later launched another drawn-out reappraisal.

The worrisome part of the deadline is that it may signal a lack of resolve that emboldens our enemies.

But for all the problems of the West Point address, the policy he announced is sound. It is essentially the strategy that Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and his team of advisers developed this summer for a comprehensive counterinsurgency — yet another word Obama avoided, oddly enough. The president isn’t providing quite as many troops as McChrystal would like, but, counting allies’ contributions, there probably will be enough to secure key population centers.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

NO. Bigger U.S. involvement will inflame anti-Western jihadists.

By Andrew J. Bacevich

Which is the greater folly: To fancy that war offers an easy solution to vexing problems, or, knowing otherwise, to opt for war anyway?

In the wake of Sept. 11, American statecraft emphasized the first approach: President George W. Bush embarked on a “global war” to eliminate violent jihadism. President Barack Obama now seems intent on pursuing the second approach: Through military escalation in Afghanistan, he seeks to “finish the job” that Bush began there.

Through war, Bush set out to transform the greater Middle East. Obama’s election was to mark a new beginning, an opportunity to “reset” America’s approach to the world.

The president’s chosen course of action for Afghanistan suggests he may well squander that opportunity. In Afghanistan, he will expend yet more blood and more treasure hoping to attenuate or at least paper over the wreckage left by the Bush era.

Achieving even a semblance of success, however modestly defined, will require an Afghan government that gets its act together, larger and more competent Afghan security forces, thousands of additional reinforcements from allies already heading toward the exits, patience from economically distressed Americans as the administration shovels hundreds of billions of dollars toward Central Asia, and even greater patience from U.S. troops shouldering the burdens of seemingly perpetual war. Above all, success will require convincing Afghans that the tens of thousands of heavily armed strangers in their midst represent Western beneficence rather than foreign occupation.

What Afghanistan tells us is that rather than changing Washington, Obama has become its captive. The president has succumbed to the twin illusions that have taken the political class by storm in recent months. The first illusion is that events in Afghanistan are crucial to the safety and well-being of the American people. The second illusion is that the United States possesses the wisdom and wherewithal to guide Afghanistan out of darkness and into the light.

According to the first illusion, Sept. 11 occurred because Americans ignored Afghanistan. By implication, fixing the place is essential to preventing the recurrence of terrorist attacks on the United States. In Washington, the appeal of this explanation distracts attention from the manifest incompetence of the government agencies that failed on Sept. 11, while also making it unnecessary to consider how U.S. policy toward the Middle East during the several preceding decades contributed to the emergence of violent anti-Western jihadism.

According to the second illusion, the war in Iraq is ending in a great American victory. Forget the fact that the arguments advanced to justify the invasion of March 2003 have all turned out to be bogus: no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction found; no substantive links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida established; no tide of democratic change triggered across the Islamic world.

The “surge” in Iraq enables proponents of that war to change the subject and to argue that the counterinsurgency techniques employed in Iraq can produce similar results in Afghanistan — disregarding the fact that the two places bear about as much resemblance to each other as North Dakota does to Southern California.

So the war launched as a prequel to Iraq now becomes its sequel, with little of substance learned in the interim. To double down in Afghanistan is to ignore the unmistakable lesson of Bush’s thoroughly discredited “global war on terror”: Sending U.S. troops to fight interminable wars in distant countries does more to inflame than to extinguish the resentments giving rise to violent anti-Western jihadism.

Under the guise of cleaning up Bush’s mess, Obama has chosen to continue Bush’s policies. No doubt pulling the plug on an ill-advised enterprise involves risk and uncertainty. It also entails acknowledging mistakes. It requires courage. Yet without these things, talk of change will remain so much hot air.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.