When President Obama addressed the country from West Point on December 1, he outlined his plans for the Afghan War. He proposed an increase of 30,000 troops over the next six months, and a beginning of our withdrawal in 18 months. The training of Afghan troops and police, he stressed, would be the goal, but we would need to focus on population safety, which requires more troops than we have.
He tried to show how this war is different from Vietnam. Critics are calling the war Obama’s Vietnam, and he pointed to the reasons this is different. He gave some history of our efforts there, including the failure of the prior administration to focus efforts there in order to invade Iraq. What he failed to account for is that being Obama’s Afghanistan could be just as much of a quagmire. Since the Middle Ages, various peoples have tried to take over Afghanistan, and all have failed. The pattern is that the country is easily taken, but no one has yet managed to hold it. The occupiers take over the cities, but the warlords maintain control in most of the area.
Obama declared that we do not plan to occupy Afghanistan, and that our focus needs to be on making the Afghans ready to rule themselves. He stipulates that the government needs to demonstrate an active effort to end the corruption that has plagued it. There are proposals to send financial aid directly to the agencies or areas it is meant for, avoiding the central government entirely to help in this effort.
Predictably, congressional conservatives approve the escalation, and distrust timelines for withdrawal. Liberals doubt the efficacy of the troop increase, but welcome the timeline for withdrawal. Obama, taking a middle path, will need to gather enough support for the whole plan.
There are two main questions that were not answered in this speech. Obama spoke of the economy and the need for resources here at home. At one point I actually thought he was going to oppose a new tax for this reason. But he did not go there. Nor, however, did he discuss how we are going to pay for this increase, which he says will cost a great deal. David Obey, chair of the House Appropriations committee, is proposing a war tax which would be a surtax on income, steeply progressive. Obama gave no opinion on this. Paying for the increase was not mentioned.
The other question not answered was where these 30,000 troops were going to come from. Our services are already overstressed. Many troops have seen multiple deployments with inadequate home time in between. We have been highly dependent on Reserves and National Guard, which are not equipped or intended for long deployments. There have been increases in symptoms of such stress, including domestic violence, divorce and separation, substance abuse, and suicide. The plan for escalation does not discuss this at all.
The congressional debate will include all these factors, I have no doubt. If these questions are not addressed in a serious way, I doubt the success of whatever we undertake.