Is Barack Obama preparing to abandon Afghanistan? As the president nears his long-awaited decision on the 40,000 troops requested by NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal, that seems to be the grim message emerging from the administration.
The most high-profile signal that the White House may be leaning against sending additional troops comes, ironically, from an administration figure who reportedly favors the troop increase: U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry. In a series of classified diplomatic cables to the administration leaked to the press this week, Eikenberry evidently expressed serious reservations about the wisdom of sending troops before addressing corruption and incompetence in Afghanistan’s government.
Eikenberry’s message has been interpreted as a way of putting pressure on President Hamid Karzai, whose victory this month in a disputed and fraud-plagued national election has undermined the legitimacy of the central government and fueled the Taliban insurgency. Yet it is equally plausible that, intentionally or not, Eikenberry’s warning could serve to immunize from the administration from criticism should the president choose to reject General McChrystal’s request for more troops. That possibility appears all the more likely when one considers that Eikenberry himself is an Army general whose résumé includes a stint as commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But while Eikenberry himself is said to support a troop surge, he may be a minority within the administration. Vice President Biden has made no secret of his preference for a dramatically scaled back mission that reduces the number of American troops inside Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has long been a skeptic of expanding the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, citing concerns about the U.S. “footprint becoming too big” and American being seen as an occupation force.
Evidence suggests this may also be the president’s view. Just this week, an unnamed “senior administration official” told media outlets that the president may decline to endorse any of the Afghanistan strategies proposed by his national security team – each of which, as it happens, entails troop increases of varying size. According to the same official, the president wants to make it clear that the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan is not “open-ended” before – and if – he decides to commit additional troops.
On their face, concerns about Afghanistan’s internal politics are eminently reasonable. Not only is corruption rife in the central government, but its ability to control the country is very much in doubt. President Karzai’s troublesome links to Afghan warlords have long raised eyebrows. It is also sensible to propose that the United States should have some assurance that adding more troops could turn around the rapidly deteriorating situation, not least because the American public now questions what is achievable in Afghanistan. According to one poll released this week, 56 percent of Americans oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan, while 58 percent are now against the conflict as a whole. The decision to risk American lives for a mission in which the country has lost faith cannot be made lightly.
Yet there are still reasons for the U.S. to honor its commitment to Afghanistan, and for the president to approve the troops that his leading general inside the country has requested. While the security situation remains perilous, some progress has been made. Thanks to the improved security afforded by this year’s earlier increase of 38,000 American troops, the majority approved by President Obama, Afghans now have more open schools, including for girls, and more access to health care. There has also been a reduction in the poppy crop – the financial engine for much of the Taliban insurgency – with some provincial governors pushing for curbs to poppy growth. However modest, these are steps in the right direction.
Just as important as what has been achieved in Afghanistan is what may befall the country if the military strategy is not given a chance to succeed. In October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that if the Taliban were to retake control, “there is every reason to believe” that the country could relapse into its earlier role as a haven for al-Qaeda and other transnational jihadists. General McChrystal has come to the same conclusion. His request for 40,000 troops is intended as part of a broader counterinsurgency campaign to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and pull the country back from the abyss.
There can be no illusions that the decision to send more troops is a difficult one. In a week when the Fort Hood massacre has brought the tragedy of lost military lives so close to home, the choice to order more Americans to the frontlines of the war on terror seems especially agonizing. But Fort Hood is also a reminder of the threats that the United States faces oversees, the fanatical ideology it confronts, and the stakes in a struggling war that a troop surge could yet salvage.