As more U.S. troops arrive, is Afghan war worth it?

By Lee Hamilton
Aug 10 2009

 Seventy-five U.S. and NATO troops died in Afghanistan in July, the deadliest month for allied forces in nearly eight years of fighting. More than 1,000 Afghan civilians have died this year, up 24 percent from 2008.


Tens of thousands more American troops are en route, adding to the approximately 90,000 troops, both U.S. and allied, already on the ground. The U.S. military leadership likely will request more troops in the months ahead. President Barack Obama will have to make a crucial decision on the future of a conflict that has become his war.

Three decades of fighting have ravaged Afghanistan. There are massive historical, cultural and tribal forces in Afghanistan that the U.S. cannot alter, although we may be able to influence them on the margins.

Currently, the writ of President Hamid Karzai extends little beyond Kabul. He has shown little interest in, or skill at, sharing power and lacks broad popular support.

The Aug. 20 presidential and provincial elections are unlikely to cure the endemic corruption and government incompetence causing countless Afghans to look elsewhere — including to the Taliban — for the provision of jobs, basic services and security.

In this context, Obama has set a broad objective that includes the core mission of defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also isolating the Taliban, supporting the Afghan government, building up Afghan security forces, securing the Afghan population, and building an economy not dependent on illicit drugs.

It's an exceedingly difficult task, and experts are already warning of mission creep. To be successful, U.S. policy will have to become clear, forceful and well resourced.

There have been positive steps of late. U.S. Commander General Stanley McChrystal is emphasizing protection of the population, removal of guerrilla forces, and abandonment of a counterproductive poppy-eradication strategy. Instead, he is focusing on interdicting traffickers. The United States and its allies are working with local leaders to improve basic services, education and humanitarian aid.

When we do leave, the Taliban will retain a presence. It cannot be defeated in the traditional military sense as long as they can retreat to safety in Pakistan. But it is unlikely that they can be victorious in the traditional military sense either. A predominantly Pashtun group, they are unpopular and lack support throughout a diverse country that already has lived through the horrors of their rule once.

Those Taliban less committed to re-establishing an Islamic emirate and motivated by practical considerations like compensation may be persuaded to halt violence and cease any cooperation with al-Qaeda in the name of reconciliation (provided their security is ensured). Such efforts are becoming part of our new strategy.

And any discussion of Afghanistan must include its neighbor Pakistan, where the leadership of al-Qaeda likely resides in sanctuaries. Islamabad fears that our stepped-up military activities in Afghanistan will drive insurgents into its territory and further destabilize western Pakistan.

We cannot succeed in Afghanistan unless Pakistan cooperates in eliminating sanctuaries for Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. We must address Islamabad's legitimate concerns while pushing for greater assistance.

In allied capitals, an important factor is the war's popularity, and therefore sustainability. Public support is beginning to wane as success appears elusive. The Netherlands will leave Afghanistan in 2010, Canada in 2011, and in the United Kingdom, a bitter fight is being waged over how long to remain committed to Afghanistan's reconstruction.

In the U.S., 45 percent of those polled believe that the war effort is not worth it. Many members of Congress, though hardly a majority, already view the war effort with a great deal of skepticism.

Strategically, there are two broad and fundamental questions to be answered. First, how will our departure impact our regional and security interests over the next decade and longer? And second, is this type of war really the best use of American power and resources in today's world?

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)