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On Afghanistan, Five-Sided Packpedaling

The Pentagon is backpedaling on leaked reports of pending troop increase requests from Gen. McChrystal.

WASHINGTON, Aug 5 (Reuters) – An assessment of the war in Afghanistan by the top U.S. and NATO commander there is no longer expected by mid-August and will not include a request for extra troops, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.


McChrystal’s initial media blitz as head honcho in Afghanistan papered the nation with his concern for protecting Afghan civilians. When the Associated Press and others reported last Friday that he "appeared inclined to request an increase in American troops," he was unhelpfully accompanied in the headlines by a UNAMA report which showed civilian casualties sharply increasing, despite repeated troop increases justified in part by claiming they’d allow the U.S. to use tactics less likely to cause civilian casualties. The report confirmed that both civilian casualties in general and civilian deaths caused by U.S. forces and our allies increased each year after an escalation.

The appearance that U.S. policymakers were on escalation autopilot prompted at least one influential senator to publicly warn that he would not support a troop increase. As Steve Hynd points out, Senator Feingold’s public opposition to troop increases might have been the catalyst for the Pentagon’s public relations effort to sooth the rattled nerves of those who don’t like throwing more troops into the GraveyardTM. Admiral Mullen even tweeted!

Speculation about Gen. McChrystal asking for more troops is just that: speculation. Work isn’t done yet, need to let him finish it.

Reuters reports that SecDef Gates gave McChrystal new instructions and extended the deadline for his review of Afghanistan strategy (the fifth such review since Obama took office…) during a chat in Belgium on Sunday. Sounds to me like Gates saw the draft and didn’t like where it was heading (or, as Steve points out, realized they needed more time for the White House to twist arms and get people behind the "new" policy).

The "War Helps!" crowd won’t be thwarted, though, in their effort to restrict the options in Afghanistan to those involving guns and bullets and swagger. Just as the Pentagon was speaking in soothing tones about the premature nature of escalation nervousness, Senators Lieberman and Levin chimed in with a frantic call to engorge the Afghan national security forces with more American resources.

Lieberman and Levin don’t seem particularly concerned by the fact that the Afghan economy cannot sustain a tax base to fund their suggested force levels and won’t be able to in the foreseeable future (see this report from the Congressional Research Service, on page 71 of the PDF), leaving the U.S. taxpayer on the hook for the funds. Nor do they seem worried by the potential problems caused when a nation’s civilian government is weak and corrupt while their military gets all the resources. Backers of further military intervention and interference in Afghanistan cite democratic values as a motive for our occupation, but few (none, actually) seem to be bothered much by the idea of a de facto military junta in Afghanistan funded by the U.S. taxpayer.

Escalation is escalation, and it doesn’t work in Afghanistan. As regional expert Rory Stewart argues (.PDF p. 66),

"the West should not increase troop numbers,” because doing so would inflame Afghan nationalism and lend support to the insurgency. “The Taliban,” he adds, “which was a largely discredited and backward movement, gains support by portraying itself as fighting for Islam and Afghanistan against a foreign military occupation."

President Obama should decrease, not increase, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and shift his focus from ‘defeating the insurgency’ to sharply reducing the level of violence as quickly as possible.

P.S. A new CNN poll apparently shows that 54 percent of Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan. For the record, that’s a higher percentage of Americans than those found to support the President’s health care reform policies in CNN’s other recent poll.

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Derrick Crowe

Derrick Crowe