Saturday, September 5, 2009

US military involvement in Afghanistan: Reliving the Past

September 5, 2009 - Op-Ed Columnist, By BOB HERBERT

The president should listen to Joe Biden.

Mr. Biden has been a voice of reason, warning the administration of the dangers of increasing our military involvement in Afghanistan. President Obama has not been inclined to heed his advice, which is worse than a shame. It’s tragic.

Watching the American escalation of the war in Afghanistan is like watching helplessly as someone you love climbs into a car while intoxicated and drives off toward a busy highway. No good can come of it.

The war, hopelessly botched by the Bush crowd, has now lasted nearly eight long years, longer than our involvement in World Wars I and II combined. There is nothing even remotely resembling a light at the end of the tunnel. The war is going badly and becoming deadlier. July and August were the two deadliest months for U.S. troops since the American invasion in October 2001.

Nevertheless, with public support for the war dwindling, and with the military exhausted and stretched to the breaking point physically and psychologically after so many years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, the president is ratcheting the war up instead of winding it down.

He has already ordered an increase of 21,000 troops, which will bring the American total to 68,000, and will be considering a request for more troops that is about to come from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

These will be troops heading into the flames of a no-win situation. We’re fighting on behalf of an incompetent and hopelessly corrupt government in Afghanistan. If our ultimate goal, as the administration tells us, is a government that can effectively run the country, protect its own population and defeat the Taliban, our troops will be fighting and dying in Afghanistan for many, many years to come.

And they will be fighting and dying in a particularly unforgiving environment. Afghanistan is a mountainous, mostly rural country with notoriously difficult, lonely and dangerous roads — a pitch-perfect environment for terrorists and guerrillas. Linda Bilmes, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has been working with the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz to document the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She told me:

“The cost per troop of keeping the troops in Afghanistan is higher than the cost in Iraq because of the really difficult overland supply route and the heavy dependence on airlifting all kinds of supplies. There has been such a lot of trouble with the security of the supplies, and that, of course, becomes even more complicated the more troops you put in. So we’re estimating that, on average, the cost per troop in Afghanistan is at least 30 percent higher than it is in Iraq.”

The thought of escalating our involvement in Afghanistan reminded me of an exchange that David Halberstam described in “The Best and the Brightest.” It occurred as plans were being developed for the expansion of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. McGeorge Bundy, who served as national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, showed some of the elaborate and sophisticated plans to one of his aides. The aide was impressed, but also concerned.

“The thing that bothers me,” he told Bundy, “is that no matter what we do to them, they live there and we don’t, and they know that someday we’ll go away and thus they know they can outlast us.”

Bundy replied, “That’s a good point.”

We’ve already lost more than 5,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and spent a trillion or so dollars. The longer we stay in Afghanistan, the more resentful the local population will become about our presence, and the more resentful the American public will become about our involvement in a war that seems to have no end and no upside.

President Obama is being told (as Lyndon Johnson was told about Vietnam) that more resources will do the trick in Afghanistan — more troops, more materiel, more money. Even if it were true (I certainly don’t believe it), we don’t have those resources to give. It’s obscene what we’re doing to the men and women who have volunteered for the armed forces, sending them into the war zones for three, four and five tours.

The Army, in an effort to improve combat performance under these dreadful conditions, is planning intensive training for all of its soldiers in how to be more emotionally resilient. And, of course, a country that is going through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and that counts its budget deficits by the trillions, has no choice but to lay the costs of current wars on the unborn backs of future generations.

Lyndon Johnson made the mistake of not listening to the Joe Bidens of his day. There’s a lesson in that for President Obama.