Topic A -- How Many Troops Are Needed in Afghanistan?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ed Rogers, Scott Keeter, Dennis Kucinich, Meghan O'Sullivan and Andrew Natsios debate the politics of sending more troops to Afghanistan.


White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; chairman of BGR Group

It is not good short-term politics to escalate the war in Afghanistan. However, it is necessary to avoid the political and security debacle that would arise from an American failure there. We are in Afghanistan to prohibit the rise of an enemy regime or a failed-state environment that would endanger Americans. Failing to do so would be much worse for the Democrats than the fatigue voters will feel from a prolonged, ugly fight in another foreign land. For his sake and ours, President Obama should be in it to win, not just interested in doing the minimum necessary to follow up on his 2008 campaign rhetoric about staying tough on terrorism.

Too often, the administration appears to have an agenda that is not about practical solutions or ensuring American victories. In Iraq we appear to want to get out more than we want to win. But we have seen what a broken Afghanistan can produce. Another Sept. 11 is the worst possible politics.


Director of survey research at the Pew Research Center

The public opinion climate for sending more troops is difficult -- but not impossible. When the United States first took military action in Afghanistan, there was strong bipartisan support for the war. Now, the American public is more divided, and there is a partisan split on the issue. A recent Post-ABC News poll found just 51 percent saying the war has been worth the costs; 45 percent say it has not. The public also is divided over whether the United States is making progress in achieving its goals in Afghanistan.

Unlike health care and other domestic issues, resistance to the president on Afghanistan is more likely to come from within his own party. While more Democrats than Republicans approve of the president's handling of the situation, more Republicans agree with the direction of his policies there. In a Pew poll in early June, two-thirds of Republicans (67 percent) approved of President Obama's decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan; Democrats were evenly divided, with 48 percent approving and the same number disapproving.

Even so, the public tends to defer to presidents on decisions about war and peace, and Obama continues to receive favorable marks, on balance, for his handling of the war: 47 percent approved in a July Pew Research Center poll, vs. 33 percent who disapproved. And the president's latitude for action may be widened somewhat by the fact that the war in Afghanistan remains below the radar for much of the public and the news media. Just 24 percent of the public said they were following news about the war very closely last week, and Pew's News Coverage Index found that just 2 percent of national news coverage was devoted to the war.


U.S. representative from Ohio

Congress and the American public simply will not tolerate an open-ended commitment of money and troops while, back home, millions are losing their health care, their homes, their jobs, their pensions, their investments. Twenty years ago, a once-100,000-strong Soviet force departed Afghanistan, defeated after a nine-year war in which 1 million Afghans and 15,000 Soviet troops were killed, at a cost of billions of dollars. Now, U.S. troop levels could approximate the number of troops in Iraq. The new leader of the British army recently predicted a 30- to 40-year war in Afghanistan. The annual cost of the war in Afghanistan is exceeding that of Iraq. An escalation will also expand conflicts into Pakistan and Iran. The United States is broke. How are we going to pay for this?

Sooner or later the public will ask: Are we protecting the American way of life, or has government been turned into a machine to fund war profiteers?


Professor of the practice of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; former deputy national security for Iraq and Afghanistan

The Obama administration should make clear that it will seriously consider any requests for more resources with the presumption to meet them. In doing that, President Obama should reject three arguments currently made against accepting a recommendation for more troops.

First, some say that additional troops might cause Afghans to resent the United States as an occupying force. We are too far from that point for it to be our primary concern. What Afghans resent most is the presence of U.S. soldiers who don't increase their personal security. If more troops provide better security, this issue will subside.

Second, some wrongly argue that the administration should wait and assess the most recent increase in soldiers before considering a request for more. But in counterinsurgency, an incremental increase in troops does not produce a commensurate increase in security. It is more accurate to think of a threshold above which U.S. forces can perform certain missions and below which such missions can only be done with serious risks and flaws. No one is better situated to assess this than Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Third, some insist that Afghanistan is just not worth it. While we can debate the merits of a stable Afghanistan on its own, the strongest argument for continued U.S. engagement there is that a failed Afghanistan would significantly increase the chances of a future calamity in neighboring Pakistan.

In contrast, Washington may legitimately feel it cannot meet a request for more troops because of other global commitments. In that case, McChrystal should ask the administration to revisit its strategic guidance and decide what it can accept not being done in Afghanistan. It is unfair to look to those in the field to close the gap between ends and means if Washington won't.


Professor in the practice of diplomacy at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University

Stability and security are preconditions for rural development in both Afghanistan and the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan, the base of operations for the Taliban and al Qaeda. These conditions can not be achieved without substantially more U.S. and allied troops conducting a classic counterinsurgency campaign to take and hold territory and protect the civilian population. That must be followed by rural development projects particularly aimed at improving family incomes and food security and building rural roads to reduce isolation -- thus extending the writ of the central governments. Without Afghan support, any counterinsurgency campaign will fail, and that support depends on minimizing civilian casualties, avoiding any disruption of the fragile rural economy and showing consistent respect for local leadership and customs.

If the U.S. and its allies do not deploy these troops, the Taliban will gradually eliminate the already limited central government and international presence in rural Afghanistan. If we do introduce more troops, the president should warn the American public that the war will be long, hard and involve higher casualty rates among our troops, but that it is the only way of ensuring the region is never again used as a base of operations for attacking the United States. A clearly stated national defense justification is the one rationale that can provide sustained public support for what will be a costly and extended campaign over several presidencies.

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