Commentary: Doomed to repeat history in Afghanistan?

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 26, 2009 

President Barack Obama this week is laying out the road home from the war in Iraq during the next 19 months. More or less.

The President has indicated that he'll order the withdrawal of upward of 100,000 American troops from a war that began six years ago and has cost us more than 4,200 American dead, well over 70,000 wounded or injured and nearly a trillion dollars in national treasure.

This withdrawal, however, will leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi security forces, safeguard American facilities and personnel and continue tracking down and eliminating the worst al Qaida in Iraq terrorists.

The president and the generals in command are operating against an Iraqi deadline of 2012 for the removal of all American troops from the country as dictated in the status of forces agreement negotiated between Washington and Baghdad late last year.

It's time — past time — to begin a major drawdown of U.S. forces in a war that was begun on false pretenses with little foresight or planning and a rosy forecast of a swift victory and an even swifter withdrawal by the summer of 2003.

The nation we set out to free from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and visit with the blessings of democracy has paid a hellish price for its salvation: Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been slaughtered in civil war and ethnic cleansing, and as collateral damage in the war. Millions more have been forced from their homes and turned into refugees abroad and displaced persons inside their own country.

If there's no peace in Iraq, there is, at least, a silence of sorts and a greatly reduced death toll, both for American troops and for Iraqi civilians.

We can only hope for our own sake that it'll hold for the coming 19 months and, for the sake of the Iraqis, for much longer than that.

Now we wait to hear how many of the American troops leaving Iraq will be retrained and recycled into a potentially disastrous war in Afghanistan that's dragged on even longer, by a year and a half.

The president has ordered three brigades of U.S. combat troops, plus additional support troops — a total of 17,000 soldiers and Marines — to reinforce the 30,000 Americans already in Afghanistan.

The American commander on the ground in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David McKiernan, had sought more than 30,000 troops for an Afghan surge, but he was given just over half that number as the Obama administration and the Pentagon study several reviews of U.S. strategy and tactics in that struggle.

Even though Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Pentagon have scaled back the Bush administration’s lip service to lofty goals such as victory and a democratically elected national government in Afghanistan as the war grows more deadly and dangerous, even that may not be enough of a row back for the Obama people.

The focus is, and ought to be, on neighboring Pakistan, and on how Washington can help steady a shaky new government there that's besieged by homegrown and imported terrorists and by an economic meltdown in a place that already had had plenty of both before the global recession made itself felt.

The new administration wants to know what the end game and the exit strategy will be in Afghanistan before it doubles down on additional forces and commits billions of dollars more in aid for nation building and rebuilding.

The previous administration was seemingly happy to declare Mission Accomplished in Afghanistan after toppling the Taliban government and then starving the necessary conflict there of manpower, machinery and money to focus on its elective war in Iraq. During the long period of neglect, both the Taliban and al Qaida went to work rebuilding in their hideaways across the border in Pakistan’s wild frontier provinces.

The Taliban insurgents now have a chokehold on as much as 70 percent of Afghanistan, and they're proving to be flexible and adaptive in their attacks on American, NATO and Afghan forces.

If the new American team has some new ideas about how to succeed in Afghanistan, now would be the time to lay them out. Nothing that Alexander the Great, Queen Victoria or Leonid Brezhnev tried in their attempts to subdue the quarrelsome Afghan tribes worked, and nothing we’ve tried in the last eight years has, either.

While we're waiting for a new strategy, perhaps we should break out some old Kipling:

"When wounded and left on Afghanistan's plain

"And the women come out to cut up your remains . . . ."

Etc., etc.

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