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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

More Troops For The Graveyard Of Empires

by dday

President Obama campaigned on the need for more attention and troops in Afghanistan and now he's announcing it. There was no big surprise here, except that the commitment is a bit smaller than the expected 30,000. But this is pending a strategy review which may further increase the numbers.

President Barack Obama signed an order boosting U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan by 17,000 combat and support personnel.

Obama said in a statement released by the White House that he approved a request for the additional soldiers and Marines made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and military commanders.

“This increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires,” Obama said in the statement.

The full statement is here. My hope is that the strategic review narrows our goals enough, away from stabilizing democracy and toward preventing terrorist safe havens that can project force globally, that we can realistically assess the impact of this increased footprint on the Afghan population.

I hear a lot of people talking about how more troops are necessary because, until now, airstrikes have papered over the lack of boots on the ground and led to an uncomfortable increase in the civilian death toll, which is unsustainable. The first response to this is that 17,000 extra troops and personnel in a country the size of Texas isn't likely to change that, especially when the airstrike targets are often in inaccessible areas. The second is to look back at recent history. We "surged" in Iraq with an increase in forces and airstrikes surged, mainly to protect the new influx of boots on the ground, which American policymakers see as more precious resources than Afghans or Iraqis. It is not consistent to suggest that more troops=less airstrikes. That never happens. Escalation is escalation.

Here's Tom Andrews on today's news:

Clearly, U.S. policy in Afghanistan has failed, as numerous reports point to security conditions that have gone from bad to worse. That is why we applaud the president's decision to conduct a fundamental review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. But it is also why we are concerned that the deployment of additional combat troops is being announced at the outset of the review process and not at its conclusion.

The risks are significant--particularly in light of the warnings of several analysts that the presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important driving force in the resurgence of the Taliban. Reducing our military footprint could, therefore, be one of the most effective measures that can be taken to weaken the armed opposition.

The first principle for someone who finds himself in a hole is to stop digging. The US policy 'hole' in Afghanistan is not of the new administration's making. But it is important for the president to consider if adding new U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan, without a new and comprehensive plan for U.S. policy there, might be digging an even bigger hole.

This is a very dangerous deployment for a number of reasons, not the least of which is how war can erode popular support at home and constrain a President's initiatives. The Vice President has said to expect greater casualties from Afghanistan in the coming year. What we should expect is an actual strategy before committing sons and daughters to an uneasy and perhaps unwinnable conflict.