Bob and Hillary’s escalation


Both politically savvy, experienced and efficient players inside the government bureaucracy, they present a formidable force as the administration sorts out its Afghan strategy. Reportedly, they both favor a “middle ground” somewhere south of the 80,000 additional troops many “hawks” really want. Their likely recommendation is 40,000, a number often mentioned as a White House target.

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Gates has prospered through a long government career by understanding the political climate of the country and mastering the art of the possible. Clinton is one of the best political strategists in the country. They both understand that Americans are fed up with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and seriously doubt that we can accomplish anything worthwhile in either country. As Vice President Joe Biden seems to understand, they are increasingly seeing our adventure in Afghanistan as not being worth the blood and treasure expended on it. Unlike Biden, however, Gates and Clinton seem committed to soldiering on — the only question being, just how much of a commitment will people accept? Not much, is the likely answer.

Americans are a patriotic and patient lot. The country got behind our invasion of Afghanistan because there was much evidence that the ruling Taliban was, indeed, providing a sanctuary to al Qaeda terrorists. We believed the country was likely where the Sept. 11 plot was hatched and where many terrorists were trained. Our military forces were by and large successful in driving the Taliban out of the country, although Osama bin Laden slipped through our hands. Then our soldiers were diverted to Iraq to pursue the same enemy we had supposedly just defeated in Afghanistan.

It turns out there were no al Qaeda in Iraq, and frustration with that war greatly contributed to Barack Obama’s winning the presidency — a phenomenon that Hillary Clinton watched from the sidelines after losing her race for the nomination. Now Americans are realizing that while we turned our back on Afghanistan, the country went to hell in a hand-basket. The corrupt and arrogant government of Hamid Karzai proceeded to waste and steal billions of dollars of U.S. aid and build a vast criminal organization to profit from the drug business. The Afghans got virtually nothing from the regime we propped up, and the remnants of the Taliban saw their opportunity.

Eight years later, most of the country is controlled by what we loosely call the Taliban but is largely a homegrown insurgency of mujahedeen. Al Qaeda seems to be gone, although some hawks still use the threat of their return as an excuse for continuing the war. (Most intelligence analysts conclude there is virtually no cooperation or contact between al Qaeda and leaders of the Afghan insurgency.) America is increasingly viewed as an occupying power by most Afghans, and an inept one at that. The army and police force of Karzai’s government are weak, ineffective and often disloyal. What passes for justice or delivery of basic government services is often delivered by the insurgents, not the government hunkered down in Kabul. Afghanistan has never been a cohesive nation and is no more so now than before we invaded the country.

More and more Americans are fed up with what they see as a misadventure. The Pentagon says building a stable government there would take decades.

Counterinsurgency strategy says nearly 650,000 troops would be required to take, hold and secure the country so such a government could be built. We have about 68,000 troops in the country now, and the “middle ground” being proposed by McChrystal, Gates and Clinton would add somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000.

Didn’t we learn that lesson in Vietnam? Incremental increases like these only prolong the agony. Counterinsurgency-light will not win this war; it will only add our nation to the long list of Western powers that have eventually had to leave Afghanistan’s harsh environment in disgrace. Gates and Clinton should abandon their search for an acceptable level of pain and advise the president to begin winding this war down. What little we stand to gain is just not worth the blood and treasure it is taking. Americans get that message. Their leaders should too.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com