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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In search of policy on war in Afghanistan


By David Shapiro

As President Obama redraws U.S. policy in Afghanistan, here's hoping the premature Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded tips him toward restraint rather than escalation as he considers commanding General Stanley McChrystal's request for 40,000 new U.S. troops in addition to the 70,000 already deployed.

The latest speculation from Washington, however, suggests McChrystal will get much, if not all, of the increased firepower he seeks to battle the resurgent Taliban.

Obama made no secret in last year's campaign debates on Iraq and Afghanistan that he views Afghanistan as the "good" war in terms of protecting the United States from al-Qaida terrorism.

McChrystal has support among Democratic moderates such as Hawai'i Sen. Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, who backed the general's view of the mission after a visit to Afghanistan last month.

"If we leave now, the government of Afghanistan will not survive and the consequences will be detrimental to the region and will ultimately threaten the security of the United States," Inouye said.

But others such as Vice President Joe Biden find it difficult to justify spilling more blood to prop up the unpopular, corrupt government of President Hamid Karzai, which will be re-inaugurated next week after an election marred by widespread voter fraud.

"If you don't have good governance at the center of all of this, you can put all the troops you want in there, you can invest all the money you want in there, and it won't make any difference," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

Even McChrystal said in his report to Obama that "widespread corruption and abuse of power" by the Karzai government threaten the U.S. mission in Afghanistan as much as the Taliban.

The Biden group advocates letting the Afghan government take the lead in dealing with the Taliban while the U.S. draws back and focuses on counterterrorism against al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Taliban, routed early in the war, have made a steady comeback despite being outnumbered more to 10 to 1 by U.S., Afghan and NATO troops.

It's difficult to see the surge McChrystal suggests winning out in the long run, keeping in mind that we think in four-year election cycles while the people we're up against think in terms of centuries.

Americans quickly lose their stomach for conflict when our national interest becomes fuzzy only 37 percent support escalation of the war while our adversaries seem to have an endless supply of young Muslims willing to fight us when we venture onto their turf.

The longer we stay in what is becoming the longest war in U.S. history, the more we're seen by the Afghan people as occupiers rather than liberators. Support among them appears to be growing for accommodation with the Taliban to stop the fighting and let them live in peace.

Our initial goal in Afghani-stan was to break up al-Qaida strongholds where terrorism was plotted against U.S. targets, and we succeeded in running al-Qaida out of Afghanistan eight years ago.

We could have left then, with nothing to stop us from returning with targeted strikes if al-Qaida tried to return.

Instead, we stuck around to engage in poorly conceived nation-building in a part of the world where we don't understand the culture and are historically unwelcome.

It seems time to worry less about which corrupt regime runs the internal affairs of Afghanistan and focus on our original goal of stopping outside groups from setting up camp to train terrorists targeting the U.S.

If Obama turns this from George W. Bush's war into his, he'd better be able to clearly tie his strategy to compelling U.S. national interests, set clear benchmarks for measuring success and draw a clear map toward an exit.