Patricia DeGennaro: Obama’s War — The Next Best Steps in Afghanistan?

Tonight, America’s commander-in-chief will address the nation to outline his new Afghanistan strategy. Among other things, this means many of the West Point cadets in the audience will learn what their immediate futures have in store.

According to White House officials, President Obama will comply with General McChrystal’s request for more soldiers, deploying 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan over the next six months. Obama has reportedly said that these young men and women will be asked to “finish the job.”

Of course, the question remains: What exactly is the “job”?

For eight years, forces on the ground have been struggling to find the mission. Hopefully, all of us will soon hear what their “job” is and why it will entail deploying thousands of extra soldiers. Thanks to McChrystal’s assessment, we now understand some of what more soldiers will do. The influx of troops will certainly build and train the Afghan army and police forces and arm militia-style provincial patrols. They will also use counterinsurgency tactics to target Al Qaeda and/or the Taliban while protecting average Afghans, as well as add a dash of nation building.

Unfortunately, this multi-billion dollar strategy ignores the reality of Afghanistan. No one can easily summarize the challenges and complexities there. The country comprises a conglomeration of cultures, ethnicities, languages, and beliefs, and is surrounded by problematic neighbors. History has shown that large-scale interventions there never work and that treading more lightly makes a difference.

Hopefully, President Obama kept this in mind during the strategic deliberations leading up to tonight’s announcement. The provincial successes we have seen thus far have come from small, non-governmental institutions that work with little, but give everything they have to empower the local people—not the warlords or corrupt government officials. Further, Afghanistan cannot be governed by military force alone, unless the goal is to establish an extended period of martial law. Without a functioning government, all those troops training and arming the Afghan forces will make little difference.

U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry recently urged the U.S. to delay sending more troops. His argument was colored by the mismanagement and corruption he’s seen within the Afghan government, afflictions that have also affected many international aid organizations. To date, billions of dollars have been poured into fighting a war without clearly defined objectives, and to building a central government without first drafting a sensible blueprint. Both military and civilian leaders need to revisit their management and cooperation efforts, and better define their “jobs” if any progress is to be made.

Unfortunately, the military solution seems to be moving forward without first determining its overall aim. Without that, there is no way to “fix” the problem, win public support (domestic and foreign), and smoothly exit the country once the insurgency is quelled.

It would behoove President Obama to remember the old adage, "Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires.” Despite the lessons of our predecessors, Washington seems bent on re-enacting past failures by shooting first and asking critical questions later. President Obama’s speech must be concise about the job he is asking our soldiers to endure while explaining how his team asked the right questions to come to this conclusion—before the final tally in money and blood climbs higher on all sides.

Patricia DeGennaro is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, focusing on Afghanistan, the Middle East, and civil-military affairs. She is also an adjunct assistant professor at New York University where she teaches courses on international security and U.S. foreign policy.

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