Commentary: Afghanistan has the smell of South Vietnam in 1965

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 19, 2009 

President Barack Obama this week announced that he was ordering an additional 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan, more than half the reinforcements that ground commanders have been seeking for months.

By providing that half a loaf, the new president hopes to buy some time to absorb and analyze new strategic studies of a protracted, long-neglected war that's been going south on us at an alarming pace.

America’s ground commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David McKiernan, welcomed the news of the reinforcements that'll be on their way this spring and summer, but in a frank assessment of the situation, he said that we are "at best stalemated" in the war against a resilient, home-grown enemy that's proving to be very adaptable and dangerous.

McKiernan added, in what may be an understatement, that, "Even with these additional forces, I have to tell you that 2009 is going to be a tough year."

Providing even the 17,000 additional U.S. troops will impose new stresses on the Army and Marines, who have to provide those forces while Iraq continues to suck up most of our military manpower and a huge chunk of the Pentagon budget.

McKiernan said the additional U.S. forces would be sent to southern Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO forces are stalemated in their war with Taliban insurgents. He added that he hoped the reinforcements would allow him to make less use of U.S. airpower.

The shortage of ground troops has forced commanders to rely on American airstrikes in areas where they're the only option to fight the Taliban. The airstrikes are blamed for increased civilian casualties, which have angered the very population we want on our side.

The White House has signaled that it needs time to develop a comprehensive Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, one that relies less on military firepower and pays more attention to nation-building in the war-ravaged country and diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan’s neighbors.

It's been eight years since the U.S. invasion that toppled the Taliban government in the wake of 9/11 — eight years of neglecting what arguably is the more important Afghanistan-Pakistan theater while former President George W. Bush diverted our resources and our attention to his war of choice in Iraq.

While our eyes were turned toward Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has grown ever worse. The government of President Hamid Karzai has succeeded only in taking the definition of corruption to a new low as his country has burnished its credentials as the world’s largest producer of opium and heroin.

The Taliban now hold sway in two-thirds of the country, feeding on their share of the narcotics trade and operating from safe havens across the border in Pakistan. The insurgents are drawing ever closer to Kabul, operating with impunity within a dozen miles of the capital.

Although the Bush administration's stated goal in Afghanistan was victory over the rebels and the creation of a functioning democracy, it starved the effort of money and troops and turned a blind eye to the spread of opium poppy fields and the narcotics trade.

What's desperately needed now are a far more subtle definition of what constitutes success in Afghanistan and a simultaneous injection of aid projects to improve the lot of a population that's endured more than three decades of war and civil war.

The greatest need of all is an exit strategy that takes into account the fact that Afghanistan is surrounded by neighbors, some of them predatory, who have a keen interest in the outcome — Pakistan, Iran and Russia.

Meanwhile, U.S. commanders are stuck fighting a losing war in a landlocked country with long and insecure supply lines through Pakistan, where rebels and thieves pounce on the vulnerable convoys almost at will — and more troops will need more supplies.

To put it bluntly, Afghanistan today has the smell of South Vietnam in early 1965, just as the U.S. began ramping up for a war that would last a decade and cost the lives of more than 58,000 Americans and as many as 2 million Vietnamese before it ended in our defeat.

It's just one more incredible mess that President Obama has found waiting on his desk, and he understandably appears to want to tread very, very cautiously into this uncharted minefield.

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