Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Three major foreign policy decisions must be made by the Obama Administration by the end of the year: 1) whether to increase U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan; 2) how to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program: 3) how much pressure to exert on Israel and Arab countries to end the Palestine conflict. Afghanistan is the most crucial.

Obama's dilemma resembles one that President Lyndon Johnson faced on Vietnam in 1965: How high should U.S. troop strength be increased while holding in check public and congressional opposition to the war?

U.S. military forces in Afghanistan currently number about 60,000 and will grow to 68,000 by year's end. Obama's decision is whether, and how far, to go beyond that level. General Stanley McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, reportedly has asked for an additional 30,000 to 40,000 troops.

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward recently learned that General McChrystal warned the Pentagon that unless he gets additional forces next year, the conflict in Afghanistan "will likely result in failure." ("McChrystal: More Forces or Mission Failure." Sept. 21)

The similarity to South Vietnam in 1965 is striking. In April that year, the U.S. force in Vietnam totaled 26,000, including 3500 combat Marines. General William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander, then requested an additional 40,000, and in July President Johnson increased the force level to 125,000. By the end of 1965, the force had grown to 184,000. Two years later, it had ballooned to nearly 500,000.

The current debate on Afghanistan was triggered early in September by columnist George Will whose commentary was headlined, "Time to Get Out of Afghanistan." (Washington Post, Sept. 1) He argued that "nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second worst place to try." A few days later, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof weighed in with a commentary titled, "The Afghanistan Abyss."

Supporters of the war launched a counteroffensive. The Wall Street Journal published a strong pro-war commentary by three members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lindsey Graham, Joseph Lieberman, and John McCain, who wrote: "We are confident that not only is it winnable, but we have no choice. We must prevail in Afghanistan…And now is the time to commit the decisive military force necessary to prevail." ("Only Decisive Force Can Prevail in Afghanistan," Sept. 14)

However, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of that key committee, had a different view. He voiced opposition to sending more troops until much greater efforts were made to expand and train the Afghan army to fight the Taliban. Vice President Joseph Biden reportedly favors a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The parallel between arguments now heard for escalation in Afghanistan and those in 1965 promoting troop increases in Vietnam is strong. In 1965, Pentagon leaders, except for the Marines, favored a troop buildup in the expectation that America could "win" the war. President Johnson agreed to the escalation and told the public that doing otherwise would destroy America's credibility in Asia. Today, we hear similar arguments about the likely effects of "surrender" in Afghanistan on U.S. relations with Asia.

The president has three options in Afghanistan, but only two are realistic:

Reduce American combat forces while greatly increasing U.S. assistance programs. However, this option is realistic only when security is provided in populated areas where U.S. aid programs are being carried out with the help of the Afghans.

Increase the size of security forces and provide protection to areas of high value, for example, the Kandahar region in the south. The drawback is that additional troops will entail higher casualties. And there is no assurance that 40,000 additional troops will defeat the insurgency. As we learned in Vietnam, the size of the military's "footprint" causes problems with the local population, who will view it as occupation.

Withdraw completely over two years. While this course is attractive to some, it is not realistic. Most Americans are not willing to abandon Afghanistan, as we did Vietnam in a humiliating way in 1973-74. Also, none of the neighboring countries, including Pakistan, India, and Iran wants a political vacuum in South Asia that would be filled by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Finally, Congress is not likely to cut off funding for the war.

The most likely scenario is that Barack Obama will reluctantly authorize an increase of up to 40,000 American forces for next year. But he needs to put a cap of about 100,000 on the overall level. That may not be what the military eventually wants, because it will not ensure a clear victory in Afghanistan.

However, that level of forces should make it possible over several years to provide Afghanistan with breathing space, and to enable it gradually to become a viable, friendly state. Although this will not be a flourishing democracy, I believe the outcome would constitute a real success for U.S. policy in South Asia.

File last modified on Tuesday, 6-OCT-2009 9:53 PM EST

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