Editorial: Reject surge answer for Afghanistan

  • Updated: November 21, 2009 - 5:39 PM

Focus military and money on building an effective Afghan army.

President Obama will soon make one of his most consequential decisions. It will be about war, and whether America should escalate its involvement in Afghanistan by sending more troops.

Many who advocate for the surge say Obama would do well to listen to the general he placed in the country.

Yes, but which general?

Is it Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the current commander Obama recently tasked with combatting the counterinsurgency led by the Taliban, who has requested, according to leaked reports, at least 40,000 more troops?

Or should Obama listen to Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry -- who shed the Army fatigues he wore as the former top American commander in Afghanistan when he became our ambassador there? Eikenberry's recent diplomatic cables to the White House, also leaked to the press, express doubts about the wisdom of adding troops. Eikenberry's assessment is more convincing.

Both military men share the same goal -- to put the war on course toward a long-term success without the United States having to wage the battle long-term.

But sending more troops now would deliver the wrong message to the Afghan government, allowing leaders to believe they can ignore American complaints about corruption and their failure to develop an effective Afghan army. In the end, they will conclude, U.S. and other NATO soldiers will continue to do the bulk of the fighting and dying in carrying the struggle to the insurgency.

Accelerating the readiness of the Afghan army was just one of the key issues this newspaper raised on Oct. 27 in challenging the Obama administration to answer essential questions before committing more troops to the region. The New York Times raised many of the same questions in a Thursday editorial.

Here are our answers:

The disproportionate sacrifice of America's military families in pursuit of the nation's antiterror policies shocks the conscience. The human cost of the casualties is incalculable.

The costs that can be added up are shocking, too. Already the annual military budget totals $680 billion. Adding 40,000 more combat troops, at an estimated cost of about $1 million per soldier per year, could add $40 billion in a stroke, according to internal government estimates obtained by the New York Times.

America must of course be prepared to pay any price, if it's needed to protect the country. But increasingly many experts believe more troops may even strengthen the position of the insurgency.

Keeping troop levels constant isn't abandoning Afghanistan. Indeed, Obama has already added 21,000 soldiers there, bringing the current force to 68,000.

Those troops should stay, for now, both to protect Afghans from the cruelties of the Taliban and to prevent Al-Qaida from reestablishing a safe haven on Afghan soil, as it did in plotting the 9/11 attacks.

But increasingly, the U.S. mission should shift toward getting Afghan President Hamid Karzai to take ownership of his country's war. Karzai, inaugurated Thursday for a second but tainted term after widespread allegations of voter fraud, has already been warned by Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and others that he must reform a government that Transparency International deemed the second most corrupt in the world. They should also press the case that Karzai should focus on building an effective army instead of his political power and bank account.

Obama has called Afghanistan a "war of necessity," and he was right. But there are many ways to win a war. For now, he should heed Eikenberry and others advocating that he hold off on a troop surge.

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