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Afghanistan: Waiting for the 'Exit Strategy'
It's Afghanistan week, with President Obama's Afghanistan review complete and the new strategy for the war set to be released any day now. In his 60 Minutes interview, Obama suggested that he's leaning toward the "minimalist" theory that the war in Afghanistan has to focus on Al Qaeda and that the United States needs "an exit strategy." From the transcript:
"What we can't do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is gonna be able to solve our problems. So what we're looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there's gotta be an exit strategy. There's gotta be a sense that this is not perpetual drift."
Asked what America's mission in Afghanistan is, Obama replied:
"Making sure that Al Qaeda cannot attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests and our allies. That's our number one priority. And in service of that priority there may be a whole host of things that we need to do. We may need to build up economic capacity in Afghanistan. We may need to improve our diplomatic efforts in Pakistan.
"We may need to bring a more regional diplomatic approach to bear. We may need to coordinate more effectively with our allies. But we can't lose sight of what our central mission is. The same mission that we had when we went in after 9/11. And that is these folks can project violence against the United States' citizens. And that is something that we cannot tolerate."
But Obama has is sending 17,000 more US troops to the war that can't be won militarily, and he's talking about "building up economic capacity in Afghanistan," which could take many years. Are we prepared to stay for years? Is Obama prepared to spend his entire presidency fighting the Afghan war? That's the question asked by Jackson Diehl in a Washington Post op-ed today, in which Diehl answers in the affirmative. Citing General David McKiernan, who's demanding a further buildup, Diehl writes:
McKiernan believes the Afghan army, now at 80,000 members, will have to grow to 240,000 before it can defend the country on its own -- and that raising it to that level will take until 2016. Would Obama be willing, or politically able, to devote the entirety of his presidency to a war that has already lasted seven years? The thousands of American soldiers and civilians pouring into the country deserve that strategic patience; without it, the sacrifices we will soon hear of will be wasted.
That doesn't sound like an exit strategy to me.
The indefatigable Walter Pincus, writing the Post on Sunday, describes the huge buildup of US-funded military infrastructure in Afghanistan, which makes it look even more like we're settling in for the long haul:
At Bagram air base, for example, the Army Corps of Engineers is managing about $650 million in construction. ... The [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers has become the largest employer of Afghans after the national government. Corps contractors ... will spend about $4 billion in Afghanistan this year and employ between 45 percent and 60 percent of the overall construction industry in that country. The U.S. Agency for International Development spends, he said, $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year in Afghanistan.
The corps has about 720 miles of roads under construction in Afghanistan, with another 250 to 350 planned for next year. [The U.S. will spend] about $4 billion this year and $4 billion to $6 billion in 2010 to more road contracts.
Does that sound an "exit strategy"? No.
As the New York Times reported last week, current plans for expanding the Afghan security forces to 400,000 -- including raising the size of Afghanistan's army from 80,000 to 260,000 -- will cost up to $20 billion over 6-7 years. And that's just the cost of training and equipping the forces. Sustaining them will cost, I've heard, as much as $4 billion a year ever year after that. (Afghanistan's entire national budget is only $1.1 billion a year.)
Various reports leaking out about Obama's Afghan strategy suggest that Vice President Biden and Bruce Riedel, the former CIA officer in charge of the review, are leaning toward the "minimalist" view -- that the US cannot rebuild the whole country and repair its shattered society, and that as long as Al Qaeda is defanged, we've "won." On the other hand, General Petraeus, Centcom commander, and Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy, want a much bigger strategy. According to Jim Hoagland of the Post, there is a developing "synthesis that moves everybody toward a middle ground," whatever that means.
Last week, John McCain and Joe Lieberman, in an op-ed entitled "Our Must Win War: The 'Minimalist' Path Is Wrong for Afghanistan", attacked attacked the idea of limited goals, saying instead that there is no "shortcut to success," no "middle way":
As the administration finalizes its policy review, we are troubled by calls in some quarters for the president to adopt a "minimalist" approach toward Afghanistan.
[Tonight's] news conference by Obama will be a big deal, and not only because he'll be defending his secretary of the treasury and the bailout plan. He'll also have to convince Americans that he knows what he'd doing in Afghanistan. The US public is increasingly skeptical of the war. According to Gallup:
A new USA Today/Gallup poll finds growing concern about the war in Afghanistan at the same time that Americans' optimism about Iraq is growing or holding steady.
Forty-two percent of Americans now say the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Afghanistan, up from 30% earlier this year and establishing a new high.