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More U.S. troops to Afghanistan?

Before sending more brave men and women there, let's question conventional wisdom. It will take more than military might to succeed in Afghanistan.

By Russ Feingold / October 24, 2008


Washington policymakers and others are increasingly recognizing that we need to return our attention to Afghanistan and the threat of Al Qaeda. While the administration has pursued a misguided war in Iraq, the Taliban has regrouped in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda has established a stronghold across the border in Pakistan, and Al Qaeda affiliates have gained strength around the world.

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But few people seem willing to ask whether the main solution that's being talked about– sending more troops to Afghanistan – will actually work.

If the devastating policies of the current administration have proved anything, it's that we need to ask tough questions before deploying our brave service members – and that we need to be suspicious of Washington "group think." Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

For far too long, we have been fighting in Afghanistan with too few troops. It has been an "economy of force" campaign, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff put it. But we can't just assume that additional troops will undo the damage caused by years of neglect.

Sending more US troops made sense in, say, 2006, and it may still make sense today. The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated badly over the past year, however, despite a larger US and coalition military presence.

We need to ask: After seven years of war, will more troops help us achieve our strategic goals in Afghanistan? How many troops would be needed and for how long? Is there a danger that a heavier military footprint will further alienate the population, and, if so, what are the alternatives? And – with the lessons of Iraq in mind – will this approach advance our top national security priority, namely defeating Al Qaeda?

We must target Al Qaeda aggressively, and we cannot allow Afghanistan to be used again as a launching pad for attacks on America. It is far from clear, however, that a larger military presence there would advance these goals.

To the contrary, it might only perpetuate a counterproductive game of cat and mouse that has led to a steep erosion in Afghans' support for foreign forces in southwestern Afghanistan, the main Taliban stronghold. One of the most recent polls found that, while most Afghans support the US presence, only a minority rate it positively.

Regardless of whether we send more troops, we need to understand that, as in Iraq, there is ultimately no military solution to Afghanistan's problems. Unless we push for diplomacy and a regional approach, work to root out corruption, stamp out the country's narcotics trade, and step up development and reconstruction efforts, Afghanistan will probably continue its downward trajectory.