Saturday, September 5, 2009

United States bogged down in Afghanistan

United States bogged down in Afghanistan
By Susenjit Guha

Mounting allegations of vote rigging in Afghanistan’s general elections on Aug. 20 and rising U.S. troop casualties in the region, despite a doubling of the troops last year, are eroding public sentiment and confidence in the United States in the country’s role in Afghanistan. Many fear it could turn into another Vietnam.

U.S. President Barack Obama may believe that the war in Afghanistan is more a necessity than a choice, and wish to further beef up ground troops stationed there. But most Americans are not buying the idea. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that the majority of Americans feel the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting. The survey results come amid widespread speculation that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, will request more troops to fight the Taliban insurgency. McChrystal submitted his assessment of the war situation to Obama on Wednesday; the president is expected to review it this weekend.

The majority of people in the United Kingdom, which has the second-largest troop presence in Afghanistan, believe their troops should not be fighting in Afghanistan at all, according to a recent YouGov poll for Sky News.

Obama may have won NATO backing for his new approach to Afghanistan during the NATO summit in the French city of Strasbourg in April. But the allies stopped short of new long-term troop commitments.

So where does this leave the United States now that the war against terror in Afghanistan looks less winnable and more like Vietnam? Even U.S. Congressional Democrats have begun questioning the wisdom of increasing U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

When asked whether the elections in Afghanistan would help reduce violence and usher in development, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that the United States wants to try to enable the Afghan government to take responsibility not only for its reconstruction, but also for its own security.

If the United States, in eight long years of military presence and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, has been unable to build a credible Afghani democratic government in the face of a resurgent Taliban that holds large parts of Afghanistan to ransom, is it really worth continuing the fight to build democracy and stamp out terror?

While voter turnout in the Afghani elections was poor, the specter of increased corruption in all sectors, problems disbursing aid to the people, a volatile political climate and ethnic tensions are a big worry to the Obama administration. During a visit to Kabul in February, 2008, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden – then a senator – walked out on a meal of lamb and rice hosted by Afghan President Hamid Karzai when told by Karzai that there was no corruption in his government and in any case, it was not his fault. Critics slammed Karzai last March for ratifying a bill that would have forced a woman to have sex with her husband regardless of her wishes; the legislation was revised in July following international condemnation.

It is one thing that Karzai was seeking voter support from the conservative Shiite community that makes up some 20 percent of the population, but flouting women’s rights is another and far more serious issue, especially in light of the billions of dollars in aid that he receives for reconstruction purposes and promoting democracy in the country. According to Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, the development and good governance that Obama wants in Afghanistan is “in very short supply.”

Jean MacKenzie, a Kabul-based reporter, in a recent column for Reuters wrote that foreign aid coming into Afghanistan was one of the richest sources of funding for the Taliban and that every major project undertaken included a healthy cut for the insurgents. So international donors, especially the United States, are financing their own enemy, she said. Fears of Obama escalating the war like former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam are already surfacing, as portrayed in a succinct analogy in the New York Times titled, “Could Afghanistan Become Obama’s Vietnam?” Obama may have inherited the war, but is there a way out? An honorable exit strategy seems less likely than another bogged-down war scenario. After 9/11 the United States could have crushed both the Taliban and al-Qaida with full force and then left.

It could have acted on links with Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, much earlier and brought pressure on Pakistan to fully account for every dollar in aid it received. Instead, Pakistani armed forces are now buying peace with Taliban groups and pushing them back to their havens, short of crushing them when they come too close for comfort.

But if the United States leaves Afghanistan now, terrorists will claim a moral victory, overrun Afghanistan and penetrate neighboring Central Asian nations. Outsourcing the war to Pakistan would take it back to a pre-Afghan war scenario. Top U.S. military officer Admiral Mike Mullen’s scathing criticism of the chasm between U.S. strategy and action in Afghanistan is spot on, but his idea of a replica of a post-World War II Marshall Plan that worked in Europe cannot work in Afghanistan. Then what will work? Anti-American sentiment is high in the Afghan region. There is a clear and present danger of the United States getting bogged down in Afghanistan.

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