President Obama is facing increasing pressure to make a clear policy decision about the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It has been more than eight years since UN Forces entered the country on a mission to shut down Osama Bin Laden's terrorist base, and to topple the Taliban government that was sheltering al Qaeda.
During the runup to last year's election President Obama pledged to make the Afghanistan conflict a priority. The battle to turn the war-torn terrorist haven into a stable democracy had been allowed to slide by the Bush administration, Obama said. His administration would do better.
In March, the president endorsed a new counterinsurgency strategy centered on protecting the Afghan people and supporting their efforts to develop economically. He also sent 21,000 extra troops, 17,000 on combat missions and 4,000 to train and expand the Afghan National Army. Announcing his decision, he said:
"I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That's the goal that must be achieved."
But instead of cooling down, the conflict has continued to escalate. So far, in 2009, 848 U.S. troops have been killed in Operation Enduring Freedom, more than three times as many as in 2008.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the mission commander, described the deteriorating security situation in a confidential report to the president that was leaked to the Washington Post. Failure in Afghanistan is a real possibility, he told Obama, yet concluded, "While the situation is serious, success is still achievable."
Currently 68,000 U.S. troops have been ordered to Afghanistan. So by the end of the year Gen. McChrystal will command a total of 104,000 troops from 42 nations. Their mission includes rooting out insurgents, training Afghan troops, protecting civilians and infrastructure and breaking up opium networks.
McChrystal has told the president more troops are needed, reportedly anything from 10,000 to 40,000 depending on how ambitious the mission.
But Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and a former general who served two tours in Kabul, disagrees. Last week he sent two memos to the president opposing a troop increase. His reasoning? Afghan President Hamid Karzai has lost his credibility, and without a credible government counterinsurgency efforts can't succeed.
The difference of opinion between these two high-level players, mirrors the split mood in the country. A new Washington Post-ABC poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe the war is no longer worth its costs. Yet 55 percent are confident that the president will choose an effective strategy. When it comes to the number of new troops he should commit, poll respondents were evenly split, with 46 percent favoring sending a large number of troops and 45 percent a lower number.
Liz Grover, who spent two years in Kabul working with nonprofits and the United nations, wants to see international aid continue, but without extra troops.
But Canadian military historian Sean Maloney, who has spent eight tours with in Afghanistan with the Canadian Land Army and is an expert on counterinsurgency, has his own strongly held opinion. Withdrawing any time soon would be a disaster, he says.
" I understand people are tired," he said. "Hell, I'm tired! But what are we going to do? Walk away? Let it revert back to what it was? Let al Qaeda come in -- and lose two more buildings. Are we going to walk away from Pakistan? If the wrong people get hold of Pakistan's arsenal then what will happen?"
Maloney has seen his Afghan friends assassinated and wounded. A politically active woman he worked with was killed, and his driver lost a leg in an IED (improvised explosive device) attack that Maloney narrowly missed. He argues that after 30 years of constant war, destruction and chaos, Afghanistan is making good progress toward stability.
"We are not going to change this country overnight," he says. "We have a country that's had 30 years of war and we expect them to be just like us. We have only had eight years of reconstruction. It's only three years since the Afghan compact was signed. There is an expectation of perfection that is absurd. I don't believe this is the gross failure that is being portrayed."
With disagreement like this, what is a president to do?
After two major policy reviews and eight high level meetings in recent weeks, President Obama's next step remains unclear. Here are some of the factors he's taking into account as he develops his Afghanistan strategy:
President Hamid Karzai wa re-elected August 20 for another five years, but his election was marred by more than 2000 claims of fraud and ballot stuffing. Karzai's critics say he has stacked his government with warlords, and drug lords. His brother Ahmed Wali Karzai has been accused of drug running and graft, which he denies. Transparency International this week named Afghanistan the second most corrupt country in the world.
Experts agree that for counterinsurgency strategies to work, a trustworthy government is essential.
The Financial Costs of War
According to the National Priorities Project, a Washington DC-based NGO that analyses the federal budget, the United States will spend $39.4 billion in Afghanistan this year. It estimates the United States has spent a total of close to $232 billion on the war ... and counting.
What Do Afghans Want?
According to a report from the British Aid agency Oxfam, seven out of 10 Afghans believe poverty and unemployment are to blame for the continuing conflict.
The report notes that Afghans have endured 30 years of war, and in 2009, so far, more than 2000 civilians have been killed.
One Afghan, Azim Mohammad, told Oxfam staff, "What do you think the effect that two million Afghans martyred, seventy per cent of Afghanistan destroyed and our economy eliminated has had on us? Half our people have been driven mad ... We live in fear."
Ahmad Farid, an Afghan parliamentary delegate from Kapisa Province, attending a NATO conference in Edinburgh Scotland, told AFP news agency, "We agree with increasing the soldiers in Afghanistan but... we need the reconstruction of Afghanistan, more talking with the opposite side. ... If we leave the war, they (the Taliban) won't leave us."
The Afghan Army is Still Training
The long term plan is that the ISAF troops will hand over to the Afghan National Army as soon as possible. However, British army commanders say it will be at least three to five years, until the Afghan forces are ready to fly solo. The head of the British Army, Sir David Richards told the BBC (www.bbc.co.uk) that he believes Britain will be committed to Afghanistan in some form for 30 to 40 years.
Currently the Afghan National Army has just 92,000 trained troops. McChrystal's goal is to expand the army to 134,000 by October 2010, more than a year faster than originally planned. For the long term, the general believes the country will need a military force of 240,000 supported by a police force of 160,000.
Pakistan is a Key Player
NATO forces are working closely with the Pakistan military and intelligence services to identify terrorist leaders and target them using drone bombers. However, public opinion in Pakistan is largely anti-US military involvement, and many regions are outside of government control. Pakistan is now the scene of widespread terror attacks, assassinations and suicide bombings. Refugees are fleeing tribal areas, as the Pakistani Army battles to regain control from al Qaeda and Taliban factions.
Terrorists Thrive in Many Countries
Pragmatists point out that Afghanistan and Pakistan are not the only countries where al Qaeda is active. The Long War Journal for example, reported Nov. 13 that al Qaeda has established a training camp in Yemen.
At Home Opposition Has Grown
Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has urged the president to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
"The deeply flawed election in Afghanistan is just one more reason to question our current misguided strategy, which relies too much on military force and partnerships with corrupt government officials and security forces," Feingold said Nov. 2.
"Increasing our military footprint will exacerbate the perception among Afghans that the U.S. intends to occupy their country in support of a government many see as illegitimate. This could further destabilize the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and make it more difficult to isolate and target al Qaeda globally, which is our top national security priority."
More than 100 other members of Congress signed on to support Feingold's bill requiring Obama to set a timetable for withdrawal.
Col, Andrew Bacevich, Professor of International Relations at Boston University, and the author of The Limits of Power, spoke on public television Sept 1, arguing that the occupation of Afghanistan is no longer necessary for U.S. security.
"With regard to whether the war is winnable, I think the answer is: No it's not," Bacevich said. "And there really is a second question that deserves to be asked. Is the war necessary in the first place? I think that (US) interests there are quite limited and I would reject the proposition that fixing Afghanistan is the only way we can achieve those limited interests."
Bacevich is a longstanding critic of U.S. foreign policy. In his view, Washington depends too much on military power while neglecting diplomacy. He also well understands the cost of war -- since his son, First Lieutenant Andrew J. Bacevich, was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) while serving in Iraq.
Wealthy Backers are Funding the Insurgents
The U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said recently that billions of dollars coming from the oil rich Gulf States are funding the Taliban insurgency. Speaking in Istanbul, Turkey at a Friends of Democratic Pakistan meeting, Holbrooke said the money exceeds the multi-billion- dollar exports of opium and heroin.
"It seems to be more from individuals carrying money in their suitcases, Holbrooke said. "Sometimes they are taking advantage of the pilgrimage (to Mecca and medina in Saudi.) Sometimes from hawala. Sometimes from charities."
In March, speaking on CNN, Holbrooke said the difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan was that: "the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese never posed any direct threat to the United States and its homeland.
"The people we are fighting in Afghanistan and the people they are sheltering in Western Pakistan pose a direct threat. Those are the men of 9-11, the people that killed Benazir Bhutto and you can be sure that as we sit here today they are planning further attacks on the United States and our allies."