The first engagement in the new war on terrorism -- with Osama bin Ladin in Afghanistan -- poses severe challenges for the United States. Rooting out bin Ladin's network will require military success in a country that the Soviet Union could not conquer in ten years of trying, as well as support from unstable surrounding nations. Washington may be tempted to try to oust the Taliban regime, but doing so could rekindle Afghanistan's brutal civil war. The United States must proceed with caution -- or end up on the ash heap of Afghan history.
Since the United States first dispatched troops to Afghanistan in October 2001, the war in Afghanistan has been an orphan of U.S. policy. But with the release last week of a revamped U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, the conflict has, by default, become Barack Obama's war.
In a Foreign Affairs essay from November/December 2001, I chronicled the disasters that have befallen all foreign invaders of Afghanistan, from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union. Now, more than seven years into the U.S. intervention, the Obama administration must confront many of the same problems faced by all previous occupiers of this rugged land. How the United States manages its presence there over the next year will determine if it can break the pattern.
When Obama announced his policy for the region, he did not speak of a U.S. exit strategy -- a wise decision, as doing so would have diminished the United States' already limited ability to influence events in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. In Pakistan, Washington's allies are deeply suspicious that the United States will once again retire from the field, leaving them holding the bag. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, those fighting the United States are prepared to hunker down and wait for when they sense a U.S. withdrawal policy is in the wind. If the United States were to declare an exit strategy up front, it would only play to those instincts and make the already long odds of success even longer.
Others -- especially the anti-war wing of the Democratic party -- fear that Obama's strategy risks pushing the United States deeper into the bog of Afghanistan. But, in fact, the United States is already about as deep in the Afghan bog as a foreign military enterprise can get. The president's plan and the team that will execute it -- Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Richard Holbrooke, and David Petraeus -- must have a fresh approach and a touch of boldness if they are to have any chance of success.
At the moment, the snows are melting in the high mountain passes along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the new fighting season will soon find its rhythm. As part of the Obama administration's strategy, the United States will dispatch another 17,000 soldiers to the volatile southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar and an additional 4,000 troops to train Afghan security forces.
These reinforcements will bring the total number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to about 60,000, with NATO countries providing another 30,000 soldiers. Some in Congress -- particularly those who supported the troop "surge" in Iraq -- have called for a similar increase in troop levels in Afghanistan. These calls, however, ignore the harsh constraints all foreign armies in Afghanistan have faced over the centuries -- the nature of Afghanistan's Pashtun fighters and the tortured terrain that offers them a home-field advantage from hell.
The Soviet Union had 120,000 troops in the country for most of its decade-long occupation, from 1979 to 1989. In the end, it lost. After-action assessments conducted in the Soviet Union and United States of the Soviet failure concluded that about 500,000 troops would have been needed to "pacify" Afghanistan. And even if the Red Army could have mustered some of the extra troops, the country's terrain would have blocked their deployment; a labyrinth of roadless mountains and twisting valleys denied the Soviet Union the capacity to effectively supply a force larger than about 120,000 soldiers. Two decades later, these realities have not changed much for the current U.S.-led effort.
In June 2008, General Dan McNeill, the former commander of the International Security Assistance Force, told Der Spiegel that it would take 400,000 troops to mollify Afghanistan. Although McNeill's assertion was challenged at the time by some in the Bush administration, the Pentagon today would probably put the number of troops needed to bring calm to the country -- the military solution -- even higher: at approximately half a million. These numbers are simply beyond contemplation for the United States and NATO.
In early April, NATO members pledged an additional 5,000 troops and trainers for Afghanistan. Even if these numbers actually materialize, however, they will have little effect on the combat tempo of the war. Some Pentagon officials quietly acknowledge that even the planned increase of U.S. troop levels by another 21,000 may only replace departing NATO forces over the next two years.
With a military solution effectively out of reach, the immediate task for the Obama administration will be to redefine its mission. The first step would be to reclassify its adversaries in Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan. Committed al Qaeda fighters should be shown no quarter. The Taliban, however, range from irreconcilable Salafist fanatics and narco-traffickers to bored punks carrying Kalashnikovs for less than ten dollars a day. Although a small percentage of hardened fighters may need to be hunted down, most Taliban members and sympathizers should be viewed as targets for reconciliation.
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