Obama: Don't give up on Afghanistan

He should approve the additional troops General McChrystal wants.

During the presidential election campaign, Barack Obama maintained that Iraq was the wrong war for the US and Afghanistan was the right one.

Now he seems to be having second thoughts. But in one of the most stark warnings a field commander has ever delivered to his president, Gen. Stanley McChrystal has declared that, without a rapid infusion of more troops, the war will "likely result in failure." He is surely frustrated with White House ponderings about whether the US has the "right strategy" in Afghanistan.

Well, the strategy is pretty clear. It is to make Afghans secure enough to reject the Taliban and their Al Qaeda mentors.

As Margaret Thatcher once said to another American president, in another war, this is no time to "go wobbly." President Obama should approve the dispatch of additional troops to Afghanistan that McChrystal is requesting.

Nobody can take lightly the decision to send more young US soldiers into combat. Nobody can guarantee that the outcome will be positive. The terrain in Afghanistan is forbidding. Hamid Karzai's reelected government lacks credibility.

But as expert Stephen Biddle testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month: "Few Afghans want to return to the medieval [Taliban] theocracy they endured before. Most Afghans want education for their daughters, they want access to media and ideas from abroad, they want freedom from thugs enforcing fundamentalism for all."

Though the challenges in Afghanistan might seem daunting, there are some positive factors.

The consensus seems to be that the Al Qaeda leadership hunkered down in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region is accompanied by 150 to 500 hard-core fighters. The US and allies have been successful in recent weeks in taking out senior Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, Somalia, and Indonesia.

In the late 1980s, as many as 150,000 Afghans fought against the Soviets. Today, the number of Taliban fighters is between 20,000 and 40,000, of whom about one fourth are full-time combatants, according to Dr. Biddle.

The strategy for US forces is to eliminate Al Qaeda terrorists. The Taliban is far from a unified opposition group. It is a divided coalition of often fractious and independent units, whose loyalties can change overnight due to money, jealousy, or imagined slights. During the first US movement into Afghanistan after 9/11, many were successfully co-opted by CIA agents and special operations personnel.

Meanwhile the US military, conditioned to wage large-scale warfare against set forces, has undergone major rethinking since 9/11 about its ability to conduct counterinsurgency operations. US forces today are said to be vastly superior to the Soviet Army that attempted, and failed, to subdue Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Although Afghanistan itself concerns US security, the prospect of events there destabilizing neighboring Pakistan is a nightmare. Theoretically an ally of America, Pakistan is suspicious and often mistrustful of Washington. It believes the US has been hot and cold on the relationship, depending on American needs and ambitions at given times. It worries about US ties with India, with which the Pakistanis have oft been embattled.

Moreover, although the Pakistan Army has recently stepped up its campaign against extremists, the influential Pakistani intelligence service has long maintained political and operational ties with the Taliban and tribes living in, and moving across, the ill-defined "Af-Pak" border.

A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would provide a major haven for Taliban and Al Qaeda to attempt destabilization of Pakistan. Pakistan's own political situation has see-sawed over the years between fragile democracy and authoritarian rule. Pakistan also has nuclear weapons.

We know that Al Qaeda has had an interest in acquiring a nuclear bomb. Transfer of such a weapon to a terrorist organization with the intent of exploding it in Israel or the US is something the US cannot permit.

Afghanistan may be the right war for Obama after all.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly edition.

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