More US troops to Afghanistan?

Russ Feingold

Washington policymakers and others are increasingly recognising that we need to return our attention to Afghanistan and the threat of Al Qaeda. While the administration has pursued a misguided war in Iraq, the Taliban has regrouped in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda has established a stronghold across the border in Pakistan, and Al Qaeda affiliates have gained strength around the world. But few people seem willing to ask whether the main solution that’s being talked about- sending more troops to Afghanistan — will actually work. If the devastating policies of the current administration have proved anything, it’s that we need to ask tough questions before deploying our brave service members — and that we need to be suspicious of Washington “group think.” Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

For far too long, we have been fighting in Afghanistan with too few troops. It has been an “economy of force” campaign, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff put it. But we can’t just assume that additional troops will undo the damage caused by years of neglect.

We need to ask: After seven years of war, will more troops help us achieve our strategic goals in Afghanistan? How many troops would be needed and for how long? Is there a danger that a heavier military footprint will further alienate the population, and, if so, what are the alternatives? And — with the lessons of Iraq in mind — will this approach advance our top national security priority, namely defeating Al Qaeda? We must target Al Qaeda aggressively, and we cannot allow Afghanistan to be used again as a launching pad for attacks on America. It is far from clear, however, that a larger military presence there would advance these goals.

Unless we push for diplomacy and a regional approach, work to root out corruption, stamp out the country’s narcotics trade, and step up development and reconstruction efforts, Afghanistan will probably continue its downward trajectory. Many of the biggest threats we face in Afghanistan emanate from across its long border with Pakistan. The US intelligence community concluded last year that Al Qaeda has “a safe haven in the Pakistani Federal Administered Tribal Areas.” The Taliban also enjoys a haven in Pakistan from which it launches cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. No policy in Afghanistan will succeed without a change in our policy toward Pakistan, to one that encourages a sustained pursuit of Al Qaeda leadership as well as broad engagement with Pakistan’s civilian institutions, its population, and civil society.

The US government should provide support for robust rural development programs, which provide alternative opportunities for farmers, thereby undermining the incentive to grow poppies. Finally, the US has yet to deliver on much of the development assistance it had planned for Afghanistan. Its infrastructure needs are immense, from decent hospitals to functioning schools and passable roads. Every day that those needs go unmet, more Afghan people may turn away from their own government and allow the Taliban to move in. In the long run, regional diplomacy, government reforms, and infrastructure development may be more important to Afghanistan’s success — and to our own national security — than committing additional troops.