Feature

The growing gloom over Afghanistan

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan described the deteriorating military situation as “serious” and widespread allegations of fraud undermined the legitimacy of the Afghan presidential election.

What happenedThe Obama administration faced a growing crisis in Afghanistan this week as the top U.S. general there described the deteriorating military situation as “serious” and widespread allegations of fraud undermined the legitimacy of the still-unresolved Afghan presidential election. In a confidential report to the Pentagon, Gen. Stanley McChrystal is believed to have laid the groundwork for a request for more U.S. troops, stating that it’s not possible for the current force to maintain security in the large, geographically rugged, and socially primitive country. Saying success is still “achievable,” McChrystal called for “a revised implementation strategy” as the U.S. battles Taliban forces that are growing both in number and in military sophistication.

In August, 47 Americans died in Afghanistan, the highest monthly toll of the eight-year war. Recent polls show Americans losing faith in the war, with a majority opposed to adding more U.S. troops to the 62,000 already fighting there. Political tensions in Afghanistan, meanwhile, are mounting as more than 2,600 complaints of electoral fraud have been filed over the Aug. 20 election. Afghan President Hamid Karzai leads in the vote tally, which is expected to be completed in mid-September, but his legitimacy is under harsh attack. In one district, in which the dominant warlord endorsed Karzai’s main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, all 23,900 ballots were marked for Karzai, according to a complaint. “This regime has stolen the vote of an entire nation,” said Abdullah.

What the editorials saidAmericans aren’t the only ones losing faith, said USA Today. When Afghans went to the polls five years ago, the “promise of democracy” was in the air. Last month’s election shows how cruelly “those hopes have been dashed.” Women avoided the polls, intimidated by a “resurgent Taliban and the evaporation of the rights they had seemed about to gain the last time around.” Afghans no longer trust that their country can overcome “endemic corruption and warlord politics.”

Obama has little choice but to “tough it out,” said the Financial Times. McChrystal has just assumed command, and is “forging a sensible strategy” that emphasizes training the Afghan army and protecting civilians, so that they develop loyalty to the government. “There are huge challenges for this mission,” but both the new general and his strategy should be given a chance to succeed.

What the columnists saidIt’s time to get our troops out of this debacle, said George Will in The Washington Post. This war is already “nearly 50 percent longer than the combined U.S. involvements in two world wars,” yet what have we achieved? In Afghanistan—a nation so backward that its gross domestic product equals that of Boise, Idaho—corruption has won. President Karzai’s running mate is a well-known “drug trafficker,” and his government is so venal and incompetent that his subjects “sometimes yearn for restoration of the warlords.” In such a place, nation building would be impossible—“even if we knew how.”

Counterinsurgency is not for the faint of heart, said Frederick Kagan in National Review Online. But the Taliban can be held in check. Most of the Taliban’s activity is confined to the Pashtun belt, home to 16 million people. While the government and police are corrupt, the Afghan army has been making significant strides. If we can boost its numbers from the current 90,000 to 240,000 over the next few years, that force, combined with roughly 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops, will be sufficient to roll back the insurgency. Quitting isn’t an option, said Joe Klein in Time.com. If we do, Afghanistan will revert to a safe haven for Islamic extremists where al Qaida will hatch more attacks on the U.S.

Obama faces a true dilemma, said David Ignatius in The Washington Post. His choices now are either to commit even more heavily to a war we’re now losing, as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did in Vietnam, or to scale back U.S. ambitions, relying on fewer troops and more “high-tech firepower to prevent al Qaida from rebuilding safe havens.” McChrystal is recommending the more ambitious strategy. Vice President Joe Biden is urging a narrower focus. Both approaches are “risky,” so the president will just have to “roll the dice,” make his choice, and hope Afghanistan doesn’t turn into “Obama’s Vietnam.”

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