Nothing But Bad Policy Options for Obama in Afghanistan
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*An option to leave troops numbers in Afghanistan roughly at their present level and focus not on counterinsurgency, but on what's being called "counterterrorism-plus." This, in practical terms, means upping the use of U.S. drone aircraft and Special Forces teams, while focusing less on the Taliban in the Afghan countryside and more on taking out al-Qaeda and possibly Taliban operatives in the Pakistani tribal border regions. This option is said to be favored by Vice President Joe Biden, who also reportedly fears (perfectly reasonably) that a larger American "footprint" in Afghanistan might only turn Afghans even more strongly against a foreign occupation. This option is, in turn, often discussed by the U.S. media as if it were a de-escalatory approach and the next thing to an antiwar position. It, too, however, represents more.
*An option recently put forward by John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for what Jim Lobe of Interpress Service has termed "counterinsurgency lite." This would, according to the senator, involve more training of Afghan troops and the commitment of perhaps 10,000-15,000 additional American troops immediately. (In his typical way, however, Kerry managed to stop short of mentioning actual numbers.) Meanwhile, we would wait for other factors considered crucial for a successful counterinsurgency campaign to kick in: "enough reliable Afghan forces to partner with American troops," "local leaders we can partner with," and "the civilian side ready to follow swiftly with development aid that brings tangible benefits to the local population." Wielding a classic image of imperial control, the senator claims to want to put an "Afghan face" on the Afghan War -- that is, though no one ever says this, an Afghan mask over the American war. (Since the crucial factors he lays out for a successful counterinsurgency campaign are never likely to come into being, his, too, is a "less more"-style option.)
Quagmires, Then and Now
It's quite possible, of course, that the president will choose a "hybrid strategy,", mixing and matching from this list. He might, for instance, up drone attacks in Pakistan, raise troop levels "modestly" à la Kerry, and send in more U.S. trainers and advisors -- a package that would surely be presented as part of a plan to pave the way for our future departure. All we do know, based on the last year, is that "more" in whatever form is likely to prove a nightmare, and yet anything less than escalation of some sort is not in the cards. No one in Washington is truly going to cut U.S. losses anytime soon.
In the Vietnam era, there was a shorthand word for this: "quagmire." We were, as the antiwar song then went, "waist deep in the Big Muddy" and still wading in. If Vietnam was, in fact, a quagmire, however, it was so only because we made it so. Similarly, in changed circumstances, Afghanistan today has become the AIG of American foreign policy and Obama's team so many foreign policy equivalents of Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. And as with the economy, so with the expanding Af/Pak war: at the end of the day, it's the American taxpayer who will be left holding the bag.
Let's think about what this means for a moment: According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the cost of keeping a single American soldier in Afghanistan is $1.3 million per year. According to Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post , it costs the Pentagon about $1 billion per year to station 1,000 U.S. troops in that country. It's fair to assume that this estimate doesn't include, among other things, long-term care for wounded soldiers or the cost of replacing destroyed or overused equipment. Nor do these figures include any civilian funds being spent on the war effort via the State Department, nor undoubtedly the funds being spent by the Pentagon to upgrade bases and facilities throughout the country. In other words, just about any decision by the president, including one simply focused on training Afghan soldiers and police, will involve an outlay of further multi-billions of dollars. Whatever choice the president makes, the U.S. will bleed money.