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Escalating Debate: Should Obama Send More Troops to Afghanistan?

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Is it worth it?

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

By the end of 2009, there will be 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in addition to 34,500 troops from NATO members and other countries. It's the highest level of foreign troops on Afghan soil since the Soviet Union's occupied the country with 150,000 troops in the 1980s. Yet Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, is asking the Obama administration for an additional 10,000 to 40,000 troops.

The request is concurrent with the administration's realization that the strategy Obama laid out for Afghanistan in March 2009 is not working. Part of that strategy included the 21,000-troop "surge" that spiked the number of US troops to its largest size since the war began in October 2001.

In late September 2009, the Pentagon was leaking information, such as details of McChrystal's troop request (to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward) and deploying advisers on television news shows and through newspaper reports in an effort to pressure the Obama administration to approve the request. Obama himself said he would delay his decision. His administration was split. So was the political establishment beyond the White House.

Whatever it proves to be, Obama's decision will be critical. The American public is turning against the war and is largely opposed to sending more troops. Congressional Democrats are also increasingly critical of the war in Afghanistan. And the Taliban, by U.S. generals' own assessment, is winning.

The question Obama faces is similar to that faced by President Kennedy in 1961 over whether to send more troops to South Vietnam. Kennedy finally ruled against doing so. Americans in South Vietnam would remain as advisers only. Lyndon Johnson reversed course, eventually escalating U.S. troop deployment to more than 500,000--and losing the bulk of 57,000 American lives and his presidency along the way.

For Obama in Afghanistan, the question is whether to scale back U.S. involvement or step it up. Strong arguments are being made either way.

Current Status

By McChrystal's own assessment, the Taliban are winning the war in Afghanistan. They control between 60% and 70% of the country. The Afghan government of incumbent President Hamid Karzai is corrupt and drug-ridden, its credibility further tarnished but what has certainly been Karzai's rigged re-election in August 2009.

U.S. And NATO troops are increasingly perceived as occupiers, and the Taliban insurgency is fast becoming a national insurrection.

In an Aug. 30, 2009, 66-page report to Robert Gates, the secretary of defense, McChrystal wrote that additional troops are essential or else the war "will likely result in failure." McChrystal wrote:

The situation in Afghanistan is serious; neither success nor failure can be taken for granted. Although considerable effort and sacrifice have resulted in some progress, many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating. We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans--in both their government and the international community--that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents. Further, a perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents.
While McChrystal asserts that "doubling down" on the existing strategy of additional troops and more force won't attain success, he nevertheless goes on to conclude that only additional troops can keep Afghanistan from being lost. The contradiction in McChrystal's report is left unresolved.

Background

They don't call Afghanistan the graveyard of empires for nothing.

Twice the British attempted to rule over Afghanistan since the 19th century. They failed twice. The Soviet Union invaded in December 1979, only to retreat in utter defeat nine years later, after losing 15,000 soldiers to a mujahideen army that included Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden was backed by the CIA at the time, and the nucleus of what became known as the Taliban, which was backedf and heavily funded by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The withdrawal of Soviet forces didn't end Afghanistan's woes. To the contrary. The country degraded into a violent civil war that caused the death of up to 200,000 Afghans. By 1996, the Taliban, for all its ruthlessness, was perceived by many Afghans (though by no means not by all, including the ethnic Hazara) as the country's best chance to regain a sense of peace. It did, but at a colossal cost to Afghans' freedom.

In 1996, bin Laden, who had spent the earlier part of the decade in Sudan, returned to Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban and that August declared war on the United States. Five years later, the 9/11 attacks, planned in Afghanistan, led the United States to retaliate with plans to oust the Taliban.

Only a few hundred CIA agents and the Pentagon's Special Forces were on the ground, supporting the Afghans' Northern Alliance and being supported from the air by overwhelming U.S. air power. The Taliban fell by November 2001, but bin Laden, the Qaeda and Taliban leadership and thousands of fighters w\were allowed to escape, with the Pakistani ISI intelligence service's complicity, to Pakistan's Waziristan and Baluchistan areas, where they regrouped rebuilt, and launched a two-pronged war: the Afghan Taliban battling U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, and the Pakistani Taliban battling the Pakistani government in Pakistan, and slowly taking control of Pakistan's north and west tribal agencies.

The Bush administration quickly lost interest in Afghanistan starting in early 2002, converging intelligence and resources to its next target: Iraq. As Bush prosecuted the Iraq war, Afghanistan was again gradually lost to the Taliban. By 2008, up to 70% of Afghanistan was controlled by the Taliban, and Karzai's government looked incapable, or unwilling, to build a national army capable of turning the tide.

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