With the country's recent focus on crises in the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan has faded into the background of public attention. But this ten year war in South Asia will soon be a political issue in Washington, as a major test of U.S. policy will come in July.
When President Obama announced in December 2009 that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total of U.S. forces to 100,000, he emphasized that their deployment would be of limited duration. His goal, he said, was to wind down the military role, and he pledged to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011.
Discussion about withdrawing even some troops this summer will trigger a sharp debate in Congress between those who argue that U.S. national interests in South Asia will be jeopardized by hasty troop reductions, and those who contend that the war is costing the country far too dearly in casualties and the drain on an overburdened budget.
U.S. military commanders, including General David Petraeus, are not pleased with Obama's withdrawal schedule. They believe it would be detrimental to the war effort because it sends a message to the Afghanistan and Pakistan governments that the United States is preparing to leave.
Members of Congress are currently under pressure from constituents to reduce the huge costs of the Afghan war and the battle casualties. They appear to have the public on their side: a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans surveyed said the war in Afghanistan "is no longer worth fighting."
Advocates of early troop withdrawals include Vice President Joseph Biden and leading Congressional Democrats. In addition to top military commanders, opponents of withdrawal include leading Senate Republicans John McCain and Lindsay Graham, and Independent Joe Lieberman. Senior Republicans in the House also are opposed to a hasty draw-down of troops.
Arguments for withdrawal
Advocates of early withdrawal cite three main reasons: Even with a large U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the war against the Taliban insurgency is not likely to produce a stable security condition by 2014, the current time-frame. It is therefore a waste of tens of billions of dollars, they say, at a time when the country is faced with severe budget constraints.
A second reason cited is the massively corrupt Karzai government, which many experts see as a major handicap to U.S. and NATO efforts to fight the insurgency. Two weeks ago, Karzai reportedly fanned the flames of Islamic hatred of America by fostering the spread of news about a Florida clergyman who burned a copy of the Koran. This inflammatory report spread rapidly across the country and triggered Islamic riots in Kandahar and other cities, spurred on by Taliban supporters.
A third reason is that America's allies, including Britain and Canada, plan to withdraw most of their forces during the coming year. Others, among them the Netherlands and Italy, have already pulled out their troops. The argument is: if our allies don't see an end to this ten-year-old war, why should the United States continue to pay the huge costs of staying?
Arguments for staying
Opponents of early withdrawal argue that America cannot afford to lose in Afghanistan because it would be a massive blow to U.S. credibility in Asia and the Middle East. Many who hold this view are Vietnam War veterans who are determined that America should not again suffer a disaster like one that occurred in Saigon in 1975.
A second reason cited by proponents is that Obama's "surge" of 30,000 combat troops is paying off in terms of improved security in major population centers, including the strategic city of Kandahar. They argue that although the Afghan army and police are being trained and are assuming responsibility in many areas, they require sustained U.S. and allied support in training, logistics, and communications in order to prevail in the continuing fight against Taliban insurgents. That requires a U.S. presence beyond 2014.
Finally, proponents of staying after 2014 firmly believe that America needs a strategic base in Central Asia to prevent the resurgence of Al-Qaeda and to counter Iran's aim to expand its influence in the region. A base in Afghanistan also gives the United States influence in preventing a new war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and potentially involving nuclear weapons, which both nations now produce.
The fundamental question for Americans is whether the costs of remaining in Afghanistan now outweigh the benefits of staying. If opinion polls are correct, the Obama administration will find it difficult to persuade the electorate that he should not make major troop reductions in the coming year.
File last modified on Monday, 11-APR-2010 10:05 AM EST