It has been ten months since President Obama announced his Afghanistan strategy - a surge of 30,000 troops with a withdrawal date of mid-2011. Today I finished Bob Woodward's new book Obama's Wars. Go read it. Let me offer just a couple of impressions.
1. The president inherited a disaster. This was obvious from the start as President Bush abandoned Afghanistan to invade Iraq. But the situation confronted by President Obama seems to have been even worse than most people thought.
2. As Vice-President Biden forcefully articulated, Pakistan is the source of much of the terrorism in the world today and they actively undermine American efforts in Afghanistan. Biden was right to call for more engagement with Pakistan. I was struck by how much evidence we now have of Pakistani security forces' involvement with terrorism directed at India and the United States, though some of this has been previously reported.
3. I was unaware at how clearly U.S. military leaders attempted to limit President Obama's options to develop a plan for Afghanistan. They did everything up to outright insubordination to undermine the president. It was only President Obama's forceful leadership that required that U.S. military officials ask and answer difficult questions. Even then, the president basically wrote his own plan instead of relying on the military.
What is the goal now in Afghanistan? As the president has stated, the U.S. goal is to degrade the Taliban so that it cannot retake power (which would be a disastrous human rights nightmare) and to keep al-Qa'ida from attacking the homeland or our allies. Are these goals achievable?
I still support the Sojourners statements that I signed onto in 2009, which read in part:
We are concerned that the discussion in Washington, D.C., is far too narrow. We respectfully and prayerfully suggest that you pursue a strategy built on a humanitarian and development surge.
Massive humanitarian assistance and sustainable development can rebuild a broken nation, inspire confidence, trust, and hope among its people, and undermine the appeal of terrorism. And it costs less - far less - than continued war.
Lead with economic development, starting in areas that are secure, and grow from there - providing only the security necessary to protect the strategic rebuilding of the country. Do not make aid and development another weapon of war by tying it so closely to the military; rather, provide the security needed for development work to succeed. This kind of peacekeeping security might better attract the international involvement we so desperately need, both from Europe and Arab and Muslim countries.
Pursue political and diplomatic solutions by promoting stable governance in Afghanistan and Pakistan; seeking political integration of those elements of the Taliban that are willing to cooperate; engaging with the United Nations and regional states to stabilize the region and promote economic development; and investing in international policing to prevent the spread of extremists and the use of terror.
Having said that, I believe that there are few if any good options in that part of the world. We lost the war there when we invaded Iraq. Now we face war and a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan and entrenched terrorist forces in Pakistan, an unstable nation with nuclear weapons.
As someone who opposed the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, I'm still looking for the magic answers on how to end this war, not leave the nation in shambles, and how to keep al-Qa'ida or their allies from attacking us and obtaining Pakistan's nuclear weapons if that nation (or even parts of it) fall.
(My opposition to the invasion - which was the position adopted by Portland's First United Methodist Church, where I then served as the director of community outreach - was based on a shared concern for civilian casualties and a concern that the U.S. would follow historical patterns and abandon the region after defeating the Taliban, which is essentially what happened as the Bush Administration turned toward Iraq without dealing with the fallout from the war in Afghanistan).