Editorial: Lingering questions about Afghanistan
With the nation's unemployment rate rising and the economy remaining the country’s No. 1 concern, it’s an understatement to say this isn’t the best time to extend our military commitment in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, the United States should not walk away from the job it started there after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which was to defeat al-Qaida and protect our country from terrorism.
President Barack Obama provided a blueprint for finishing the job in a speech to West Point cadets on Tuesday. The plan calls for 30,000 more troops in addition to the 17,000 the president already added earlier this year for a total of 98,000. But he and his administration still have questions to answer about the proposal:
* Obama said this is not a nation-building exercise. But al-Qaida — not the Taliban — is the true threat to American national security. For the most part, al-Qaida isn’t even in Afghanistan; it has fled to the mountainous region of Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan.
We understand that the idea is to defeat the elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan still aligned with al-Qaida in order to prevent either group from making Afghanistan a safe haven for terrorists. But will this troop buildup truly help us defeat al-Qaida once and for all or will it help them recruit more jihadists?
* Will this new surge be paid for or simply become another line on the nation’s credit card bill? Obama offered no specifics. To date, Obama is the second president in a row to ask for the ultimate sacrifice from members of the military but nothing of the American people.
U.S. Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., and other liberals have suggested a war surtax, an idea designed more to stoke opposition to the surge than to pay for it. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who supports the surge, made the equally foolish suggestion that it be paid for by slashing domestic spending by $60 billion at a time when ramped-up public spending is essential to climbing out of the recession.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., had a better idea, suggesting that Americans be rallied to buy war bonds, as they did in World War II. It may be a quaint concept, but it’s better to be in debt to ourselves than relying on China and other countries.
* How do you get around the history of Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires? It is a rural, mostly illiterate country with no history of a stable, effective central government. Yet its loose amalgamation of tribes, factions and warlords, aided by unforgiving terrain, has for centuries effectively repelled nearly every foreigner perceived as an invader.
Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter who has covered both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, described how even basic problems seem to be insurmountable after nine years there.
“While many Afghans have demonstrated an eagerness to fight the Taliban, the Afghan Army and police have shown themselves unable to maintain themselves in the field, to purge their ranks of corruption, to mount operations at night or to operate any weapon more complicated than a rifle,” he wrote Wednesday.
Some have criticized the timetable set by Obama to start withdrawing troops by the summer of 2011. A timetable is necessary to ensure the Afghan government does its job, but it should be flexible enough to allow continued progress if the Afghans are making strides.
Congress needs to maintain stringent oversight of the effort. If the Afghans aren’t more able to protect themselves, if their security forces are as inept in 2011 as today, Congress must end the surge and the administration should consider other alternatives, particularly Vice President Joe Biden’s idea to limit our military presence and attack al-Qaida in Pakistan with offshore-based strikes. Our country must not be sunk into another expensive and seemingly endless foreign quagmire.