To answer the big question about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, voters first need to get up to speed on the core questions defining our role in the region.
If you cannot speak very intelligently about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, you are not alone. Right now the debate on Afghanistan raging in the media is dominated by hawks on the right saying President Obama is "dithering," and anti-war protesters on the left saying President Obama is becoming "just like Bush." Meanwhile, the broadcast media has decided the Tiger Woods story is the big issue of the day.
To avoid getting bogged down in the quagmire of the debate on Afghanistan, I found it was helpful to turn away from television and blogs to read newspapers and listen to radio. In particular, I found several Op-Eds by and interviews with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) to be extremely informative. Feingold sits on the Senate Foreign Services and Intelligence Committees, so he is as briefed as they get on what is really happening in Afghanistan. Feingold explains the situation in clear language. Plus, from late 2008 to mid 2009, Feingold's position on the use of force in Afghanistan changed. Taking a few minutes to read what Feingold has to say is a great way to get up to speed. By the end of this article, you should have no trouble answering the question, "More Troops to Afghanistan, yes or no?"
October 2008: Military Surge May Not Achieve Our Goals
Writing in an Op-Ed for the Christian Science Monitor (Oct. 24, 2008) at the tail end of the Bush administration, Feingold introduced the topic of Afghanistan with this crucial statement:
Washington policymakers and others are increasingly recognizing that we need to return our attention to Afghanistan and the threat of Al Qaeda. While the [Bush] 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.
OK, so that was the state of the Afghanistan question at the end of 2008: (1) Bush went into Iraq when he should have finished the job in Afghanistan; (2) policy makers and others (e.g., the public, military leaders, presidential candidates) now recognize the need to refocus on Afghanistan; but (3) nobody is willing to ask if the use of greater force is the best answer. Three basic issues, easy enough to understand.
After laying the groundwork for a discussion, Feingold then posed a series of questions that summed up the policy dilemma we faced as a nation in Afghanistan at the end of the Bush administration:
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.
Sending more US troops made sense in, say, 2006, and it may still make sense today. The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated badly over the past year, however, despite a larger US and coalition military presence.
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?
In other words, we should have had more troops in Afghanistan to achieve our goals from the beginning, but by late 2008, we could no longer just increase troop levels and expect to defeat Al Qaeda. We do not get a "do over" in Afghanistan, Feingold was telling us. The low troop numbers created problems, including but not limited to the population turning against the U.S. military. We could, Feingold warned, increase troop levels to what they should have been all along only to find that the higher levels resulted in more antagonism by the Afghan public against the U.S. Or maybe not. In late 2008, the jury was still largely out about how to achieve our goals.
For the rest of the Op-Ed, Feingold then explains that even if we increased military levels, that greater force would not achieve our goals if we did not also solve several other problems, each of which is daunting and complex by itself:
Regardless of whether we send more troops, we need to understand that, as in Iraq, there is ultimately no military solution to Afghanistan's problems. 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.
Here again, Feingold gives us three basic points to consider. Success in Afghanistan will depend on: (1) a regional approach to diplomacy; (2) rooting out corruption in Afghanistan governance; and (3) replacing the opium trade with viable and legal rural development. The U.S. military could blast Al Qaeda back to the Jurassic period, but unless we address diplomacy, corruption, and drugs the situation could spiral down just the same.
Feingold then concludes with this statement:
The decision to go to war in Afghanistan was the right one, but after years of misplaced priorities and muddling through, we have to do some hard thinking before asking our military to create the stability and security that are badly needed there.
Shortly after Feingold's Op-Ed appeared, Barack Obama won the Presidential election.
August 2009: Military Surge Likely to Push Al Qaeda into Pakistan
Less than a year into the Obama administration, as it became clearer that the new President might seek a troop surge in Afghanistan, Feingold clarified his position. Writing in an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal (Aug 28, 2009), Feingold explained that the Bush administration's poor handling of the situation in Afghanistan had created a dangerous link between our policy there and our policy in Pakistan:
President Barack Obama is rightly focusing on this critical part of the world. But I cannot support an open-ended commitment to an escalating war in Afghanistan when the al Qaeda operatives we sought have largely been captured or killed or crossed the border to Pakistan.
Ending al Qaeda's safe haven in Pakistan is a top national security priority. Yet our operations in Afghanistan will not do so, and they could actually contribute to further destabilization of Pakistan. Meanwhile, we've become embroiled in a nation-building experiment that may distract us from combating al Qaeda and its affiliates, not just in Pakistan, but in Yemen, the Horn of Africa and other terrorist sanctuaries.
These two short paragraphs sum up the reasons Feingold could not support additional troops being sent to Afghanistan. The key problem is that the "open-ended commitment to an escalating war in Afghanistan" had strengthened al Qaeda's presence in Pakistan. At the same time, the attempt by the U.S. to launch a viable nation state in Afghanistan had soaked up so much attention and resources that al Qaeda was now flourishing in new places.
Feingold then explains exactly what the new policy should be:
We need to start discussing a flexible timetable to bring our brave troops out of Afghanistan. Proposing a timetable doesn't mean giving up our ability to go after al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Far from it: We should continue a more focused military mission that includes targeted strikes on Taliban and al Qaeda leaders, and we should step up our long-term civilian efforts to deal with the corruption in the Afghan government that has helped the Taliban to thrive. But we must recognize that our troop presence contributes to resentment in some quarters and hinders our ability to achieve our broader national security goals.
Again, Feingold gives us three key points to consider: (1) putting in place a timetable for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan (a "flexible" timetable); (2) continuing a more focused military mission aimed at Taliban and al Qaeda leaders; and (3) stepping up the effort to root out corruption in the Afghan government.
Those three points are the pillars of Feingold's Afghanistan policy recommendation for President Obama. What would this mean in real time?
It would mean that under Feingold's policy, even as U.S. soldiers began to pull out of Afghanistan, the efforts by the U.S. military to disrupt al Qaeda and the Taliban would increase. A large, nation-building presence, in other words, would transition to a more nimble strike force.
It would also mean that the emphasis on nation-building would give way to an emphasis on rooting out corruption. How does that happen exactly? Feingold is not 100% clear, but he does explain that the key to denying al Qaeda a safe have in Afghanistan should switch from a large military presence to a "civilian-led strategy discouraging any support for the Taliban by Pakistani security forces."
Feingold then went on to make a chilling case for the worse possible outcome that could follow on from an open-ended, U.S. troop build up in Afghanistan (emphasis mine):
There is a very real possibility that our military presence in Afghanistan will drive militant extremists south and east into Pakistan, al Qaeda's primary sanctuary. Pakistan is a nuclear power beset by poverty, sectarian conflict, ineffectual government, instability and an inconsistent record of fighting militancy. It is a witch's brew of threats to our national security that we cannot afford to further destabilize. Yet we may unwittingly do just that. Especially before Pakistan's government has demonstrated a firm commitment to denying sanctuary to Taliban leadership it has long harbored, further destabilization could undermine our own security.
We cannot guarantee, Feingold is telling us, that an open-ended troop build up in Afghanistan with a goal towards nation building will not lead to the destabilization of Pakistan--an already unstable, nuclear state.
September 2, 2009: The Idea of Invading Countries Has Not Worked Very Well
Appearing on NPR's The Takeway (Sep. 2, 2009) a week after the Wall Street journal piece, Feingold then put his new position on Afghanistan into a broader perspective. This is the exchange between Feingold and NPR's John Hockenberry and Celeste Headlee:
John Hockenberry: Well let’s get clear here. Are you calling for an invasion of Pakistan?
Sen. Russ Feingold: No, of course not. This is the whole thing. The idea here of going after al Qaeda by invading countries hasn’t worked very well. I mean, yes, we were able to push al Qaeda essentially into Pakistan by invading Afghanistan, but we didn’t eliminate them. In fact, Osama Bin Laden and his deputy and Mullah Omar, who was the affiliate with the Taliban in Afghanistan with al Qaeda, they’re in Pakistan now. So invading a country is not the smart way. The smart way is the way that we got the guy who was in charge of al Qaeda in Iraq — that wasn’t through mass troop involvement. That was through finding out where he was and specifically targeting an attack on him, not the idea of an actual occupation that was the key for that. So, I agree with much of what George Will wrote yesterday. In fact, it was followed on my Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday, that there is a different way to fight a criminal syndicate like al Qaeda. And we’re using old ideas about invasions and occupying countries to go after an organization that sometimes thrives on our doing that. We’re falling into their hands. We’re weakening our military, we’re weakening our economy — that’s exactly the way al Qaeda would like us to proceed. So we are playing into their hands when we use this kind of a strategy. Of course, no, I am against the idea of any kind of invasion against Pakistan. That wouldn’t work either.
Celeste Headlee for The Takeaway: So are you confident that the Pakistani government is strong enough and will be cooperative enough and have targeted attacks within Pakistan to get these al Qaeda officials?Sen. Russ Feingold: Well, the jury is out on the Pakistan government.
John Hockenberry: Been out for eight years, Senator.
What we learn here is that Feingold sees a very different kind of military operation as the key to fighting al Qaeda: targeted strikes within Pakistan, contingent upon two factors: (1) cooperation with the Pakistani government and (2) enough stability in the Pakistani government, such that, U.S. strikes will not bring it tumbling down. And on that issue, Feingold concedes there are still unknowns.
Conclusion: And the Best Answer Is...?
Based on my reading of the situation, it seems that the best solution is to be found neither in the over-the-top hawkishness of the Republican faithful nor the calls for immediate withdrawal from the Democratic Party's anti-war protesters. If we withdraw altogether, that would lead to more corruption, more heroin, and more al Qaeda camps--very bad. If we bring shock and awe to Afghanistan, that would push al Qaeda deeper into Pakistan and create instability in Afghanistan's nuclear neighbor--very, very, very, very bad.
The best solution, it seems, is a withdrawal from Afghanistan that starts almost immediately, timed together with a refocusing of military strikes on al Qaeda and Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. As forces wind down, would should also redouble efforts to root out corruption in the Afghan government and in the Pakistani security forces that aid al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
At the same time, President Obama's message to the American people and the rest of the world should be as clear as it is central to his policy: The U.S. will no longer fight al Qaeda through a strategy of military occupation, but through focused strikes in concert with our allies. Our long term goal is to work with nations facing a threat from al Qaeda to help bring about stability, honest governance, and sustainable rural development.
"More Troops to Afghanistan, Yes or No?"
No--but we may need to switch around the kind of soldiers we have over there as we withdraw and refocus on the last phase of the mission.
At least that makes sense to me. Now that you have had a chance to get up to speed on the Afghanistan policy, you can make up your own mind.