17,000 Troops Will Be "a Drop in the Bucket" in Afghanistan

2008 was the bloodiest year of this war to date, though it looks like 2009 will be much worse -- and not simply because our country is committing so many more troops.
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Nearly every expert seems to agree that 17,000 additional troops will be insufficient to stabilize Afghanistan. Andrew Bacevich says 17,000 troops "hardly amounts to more than a drop in the bucket." Robert Pape believes the Obama administration is merely rehashing the same surge strategy employed in Iraq. And Stephen Kinzer says, "The Afghans are probably the world champions in resisting foreign domination and infiltration into their country," meaning that if 500,000 Russian soldiers were unable to quell Afghan resistance in the 1980's, how well will 17,000 more US soldiers fare? Perhaps that's why Gen. David McKiernan and the Pentagon could be calling for 100,000 troops to occupy Afghanistan for up to a decade.

100,000 troops? And at what cost to our economy, considering the war already runs us $2 billion a month?

Jim Hightower writes that "we're getting a rush job" in Afghanistan, eerily similar to the way in which the Bush-Cheney regime led us into Iraq. With his usual piercing folksy wit, Hightower urges us to ask some fundamental questions ("Why is it our mission to remake Afghanistan? What is our national interest, our plan, our 'victory,' our exit point?") before rushing deeper into an interminable war that will cost thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. Hightower recommends regional diplomacy as an alternative to military escalation, noting negotiations shouldn't really involve the United States, considering our thoroughly tarnished reputation. And he astutely points out that a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan's mountainous terrain will be counterproductive, since it will only push terrorists into a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Now, for the sake of argument, let's balance Hightower's assessment with a recent article from the Wall Street Journal that looks at how our military will apply the 17,000 reinforcements already committed. Reporting from a remote military outpost near the Pakistan border, the WSJ takes us through firefight after firefight where our soldiers are sitting ducks and the ultimate response is to call in more airstrikes. Gen. David Petraeus wants to use these 17,000 troops to create more of these small isolated bases since this strategy had relative success in Iraq.

To the WSJ's credit, they bring up the vast differences between the two countries: outposts in Iraq were in urban areas, whereas lack of modern infrastructure in Afghanistan means these already remote bases will be even more isolated. The article also mentions David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert who advised Petraeus on Iraq and Afghanistan, who thinks this outpost strategy is a colossal mistake. What the Journal fails to do, however, is make the connection between the outpost strategy and the skyrocketing death toll in Afghanistan.

2008 was the bloodiest year of this war to date, though it looks like 2009 will be much worse and not simply because our country is committing so many more troops. Sadly, 155 American soldiers died last year, and we've lost 30 more in 2009 already. But the more ghastly stat comes from the United Nations, which estimates 2,118 civilians were killed last year--up 40 percent from the year before--and 522 of those deaths came from Western airstrikes. As Derrick Crowe concludes, this indiscriminate bombing of Afghanistan is what fuels so much animosity toward the United States. It stands to reason that if we build more remote outposts, stranding more troops who then have to call in more airstrikes, we are perpetuating a cycle of violence from which we will never be able to escape. And if Petraeus is pursuing this doomed strategy with only 17,000 troops, what will he do with 100,000?

As I see it, we have two choices in Afghanistan. We can heed Hightower's warning; ask critical questions concerning this war before our military leaders convince President Obama to escalate it any further; and demand congressional oversight hearings that challenge policymakers and inform the public. Or, we can continue to read reports of firefights in remote regions of Afghanistan that result in more dead soldiers, more dead civilians, more dollars spent, and more war.

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