Commentary: Afghanistan isn't worth one more American life

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 3, 2009 

The debate over our creeping military mission in distant Afghanistan grows ever hotter, and before we march even deeper into trouble, perhaps it's time to dig out the old Powell Doctrine and answer the eight questions it poses.

Gen. Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said these questions all must be answered with a loud YES before the United States takes military action. He listed his questions in the 1990 run-up to the Persian Gulf War, drawing heavily on the Weinberger Doctrine that was laid down by former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger during the debate over America's ends and means in Lebanon.

  • 1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  • 2. Do we have a clear, attainable objective?
  • 3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  • 4. Have all non-violent policy means been exhausted?
  • 5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  • 6. Have all the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  • 7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  • 8. Do we have broad international support?
Those questions weren't asked and answered before we invaded Afghanistan late in 2001, and by the time we invaded Iraq early in 2003, then-defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was declaring the Powell doctrine "outmoded" as he ran premature victory laps around a fleeting success in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration is gone, but both Iraq and Afghanistan are still with us, and now a new president is overseeing a slow-motion U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and a slow-motion U.S. escalation in Afghanistan.

It can fairly be argued that not a single affirmative answer can be given to Gen. Powell's eight questions with regard to the actions now planned or underway in Afghanistan. Had those questions been asked about Iraq in early 2003, not a single affirmative answer could have been given.

There was, in the beginning in Afghanistan, a vital national security interest in toppling the Taliban government and killing or capturing the Taliban’s murderous guests, Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida terrorists. We toppled the Taliban, but we let al Qaida flee over the rugged, mountainous border into Pakistan.

Even before that, we began to let Afghanistan fester, starved of U.S. manpower and money, and turned our attention to Iraq, where Rumsfeld had estimated that victory would be ours and our troops would be home in six months or so.

We no longer have a vital national security interest or a clearly attainable goal in Afghanistan. Our stated goal is to deny any future sanctuary to al Qaida in Afghanistan - but al Qaida isn't based in Afghanistan and hasn't been for years.

We've changed presidents, changed commanding generals and ambassadors, changed our tactics and changed the numbers of American boots on the ground in a buildup that's expected to reach a total of more than 70,000 U.S. troops by the end of this year.

The new U.S. military commander in Kabul, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, wants more U.S. troops — somewhere between 14,000 and 45,000 more, at least for now — to fight the newly resurgent Taliban guerrillas who control well over half the country, but he's been told that he shouldn't ask for them anytime soon.

With the country in recession, the budget deficit spinning into the trillions of dollars, American casualty rates in Afghanistan at record highs and public approval of the president and the war in Afghanistan falling like rocks, the White House desperately wants some breathing room.

That's politics, folks, and it runs counter to an important corollary to the Powell Doctrine: If you're determined to fight a war, choose a commander whom you trust and a strategy that you back, and then give your military leaders all the resources they say they need to achieve your objective.

If you can't do that, if your objective isn't clear, if the American people and the international community aren’t with you, then order a withdrawal and explain why.

For God's sake, don't ratchet up slowly, buying time with the bodies of dead and wounded American soldiers, while you try to sell the wrong war in the wrong place against the wrong enemy to the American people.

For eight years, we've heard presidents and other politicians talk about setting conditions for a democratic central government in a country — really a bunch of tribes and clans — that's never had such a thing in 2,000 years and seemingly doesn't want one now.

The national treasure we've invested in that effort has propped up an ineffective and corrupt Kabul regime. Its only economic success has been the restoration of the opium trade. Afghanistan is now the world's leading producer of opium and heroin, where under the Taliban government that was a death penalty offense.

It's time to make a decision, Mr. President, and I hope that for our sake and yours, you make the right one. Afghanistan isn't worth the life of one more American soldier, much less the hundreds and thousands that an open-ended commitment to a war that we cannot win would cost.

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