Escalation: Humanizing the Afghanistan War

Presidents usually age a lot in office. This is no wonder considering the difficult decisions they need to make. One particularly difficult choice awaits President Obama in Afghanistan. With the rise in coalition deaths, what was once considered a forgotten war has leaped back onto the front pages., a site that tracks causalities for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom/Afghanistan, shows that the casualty rates for January, February, March, May, July, August, September and October this year are the highest ever. It is widely accepted that these increased casualty rates suggest that changes to strategy might need to be made. Hence, President Obama must decide how to proceed.

The goal is to assure Al Qaeda is unable to attack us again using Afghanistan as a base. So, the question is, ‘what option is capable of producing this result?’ The choice is not between withdrawal and escalation. Withdrawal is impossible. Without NATO forces, the insurgents would likely gain control over much of the country, particularly in the south and east, where the Pashtun ethnic group (of which the insurgency is primarily composed) is dominant. In those areas, Al Qaeda safe havens would return, supported and closely connected with at least one of the three major Afghan insurgent groups.

Instead, the choice is to either maintain current troop levels or to accelerate the training of the Afghan army and use Special Forces and unmanned drones in Pakistan or General McChrystal’s strategy of escalation that includes increased troop levels and nation building. So, which strategy is best?

Because it will takes years to make the Afghan army sufficiently effective, the first strategy depends on the effectiveness of using predator drones to bomb and Special Forces to disrupt terrorist activity. The use of drone attacks has been partially effective in the border areas of western Pakistan, but terrorist attacks continue to occur, as evidenced by a recent spate of bombings. Special Forces operations have proven effective at killing or capturing insurgent/terrorist leaders in the past in such places as Somalia, but it is unclear whether such operations can actually disrupt the operational capacity of the actual group. This strategy suffers from a major flaw; Pakistan’s government has not allowed Special Forces within Pakistan.

Without the cooperation of Pakistan’s security forces, American forces would lack access to essential intelligence. So far, Pakistan has reluctantly supported the war, in return for generous American aid packages. But, even so, elements within Pakistan’s security apparatus continue to support the Afghan insurgency. These elements wish to weaken the Afghan government that it strongly believes to be pro-Indian (partly due to President Karzai’s postgraduate study there). Pakistanis also remain wary of American commitment to Afghanistan. If we appear uncommitted by not raising troop levels, Pakistan will likely increase their support for the Afghan insurgents.

But what will the increased troops do? Reading General McChrystal’s report, the additional troops would get closer to the population in terms of daily contact and protection – a strategy that has been effective at reducing crime rates in the US and quelling the insurgency in Iraq.

Current levels of funding and troop levels necessitate more distance between the population and soldiers. This allows more distrust to grow, a fact that insurgents can exploit. The report recognizes that the success of repelling the insurgency so that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for Al Qaeda depends on attaining local support. It will also reassure our allies, including Pakistan, who are providing their own troops and suffering their own casualties, that our government’s support is not wavering.

To gain local support also requires effective governance and economic development. The greatest barrier to good governance is the weak and corrupt central government led by Hamid Karzai. Economic development has also been hampered by the insurgency and by Afghanistan’s landlocked and largely mountainous terrain.

To resolve the political issue, the coalition probably should push for another loya jirga (a grand council highly regarded by Afghans for decision-making) to choose the President. The recent elections were deeply flawed and the Constitution gives the President too many powers. A new Constitution needs to foster greater political competition by allowing provincial governors to be elected.

Although it will require the most time to implement and will undoubtedly face major challenges, General McChrystal’s strategy is most likely to achieve our goal. It is possible the troop increase will be less than the number suggested by General McChrystal as the administration waits to see what the General can do before more troops are placed in harm’s way.

Throughout the past few weeks, many voices, from newspaper writers to radio hosts to policy advisors, have weighed in about the choice the President should make. Like so many other issues, ultimately the hard choice, along with the responsibility for its consequences, will rest on Obama’s shoulders. Given this fact, President Obama is likely to age as quickly as his predecessors.

Wesley Oliphant is a graduate student in economics. He can be reached at