U.S. strategy debated as Afghan war grows deadlier

When four U.S. troops were killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan Aug. 25, it made 2009 the deadliest year for foreign troops there since the 2001 U.S. invasion.

Last weekend, U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan said they do not have enough troops. The top commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is currently conducting a review of the overall U.S. strategy. The latest statements suggest the possibility that when the review is completed, President Obama could be pressed to send more troops, even as support for the war appears to have declined in the U.S.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Afghanistan military situation “serious” and “deteriorating.” Speaking Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” he said, “The Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated, in their tactics.”

In February, President Obama approved sending an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total U.S. military presence there to about 60,000 troops.

They make up the majority of the 100,000 foreign forces in Afghanistan under NATO auspices. The bulk of the casualties are also American. Of the total of 1,302 foreign troops who have died since the 2001 invasion, 802 are American. British casualties are second, at 206. Canada is third, at 127 deaths since 2001.

The latest U.S. deaths bring to 63 the number of foreign soldiers killed in Afghanistan this month. More foreign troops have died in Afghanistan since March than in the entire period from 2001 to 2004.

Estimates of Afghan civilians killed by all sides since 2001 are difficult to come by, but the numbers are believed to be many thousands, including thousands killed in U.S. aerial bombardments.

Recent polls show considerable ambivalence on Afghanistan among the American public, and declining support for the war.

An ABC/Washington Post poll conducted Aug. 13-17 showed that a majority still support Obama’s handling of Afghanistan. But that majority, 60 percent, was down a few points from the 63 percent favorable response in April, and those who disapproved had risen to 33 percent from 26 percent in April.

A majority, 51 percent, now said the war was not worth fighting, up from 47 percent in April.

And only 24 percent favored sending more troops, down from 34 percent in April.

A CNN poll taken July 31-Aug. 3 found 54 percent oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

“I’m certainly aware of the criticality of support of the American people for this war and in fact, any war,” Admiral Mullen said Sunday, this time on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And so certainly the numbers are of concern. That said, the president’s given me and the American military a mission, and that focuses on a new strategy, new leadership, and we’re moving very much in that direction.”

He said, “I believe we’ve got to start to turn this thing around from a security standpoint in the next 12 to 18 months.”

Some analysts say that additional troops will not make the difference. What is required to extract the U.S. from what is looking more and more like a quagmire, they say, is a serious comprehensive strategy that includes a political and economic approach to addressing the needs and concerns of Afghan civilians.

“Tens of thousands more U.S. troops, simply thrown into the fray, guns blazing, would be the death knell for American hopes in Afghanistan — simply intensifying the violence to no clear end,” writes Mark Sappenfield in the Christian Science Monitor. “But tens of thousands of troops deployed to protect key population centers, to target opium networks, to work with local tribal elders, to root out corrupt government officials and programs – these could, at least potentially, have a transformative impact.”

Graham Fuller, a former CIA station chief in Kabul and a former vice-chair of the CIA's National Intelligence Council, wrote in the Huffington Post in May, “Military force will not win the day in either Afghanistan or Pakistan; crises have only grown worse under the U.S. military footprint.”

Taliban extremists’ “main source of legitimacy comes from inciting popular resistance against the external invader,” Fuller wrote. “Sadly, U.S. forces and Islamist radicals are now approaching a state of co-dependency.”

His recommendation: “Let non-military and neutral international organizations, free of geopolitical taint, take over the binding of Afghan wounds and the building of state structures.”

“If the past eight years had shown ongoing success, perhaps an alternative case for U.S. policies could be made. But the evidence on the ground demonstrates only continued deterioration and darkening of the prognosis. Will we have more of the same? Or will there be a U.S. recognition that the American presence has now become more the problem than the solution? We do not hear that debate.”

suewebb @ pww.org

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