This editorial appeared in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.
On just one day last week in the Afghan war – in Helmand province, two decorated Camp Lejeune Marines were killed by a roadside bomb; in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai met with angry relatives of civilians accidentally killed by U.S. forces; and in Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates bluntly warned Congress that the United States can and should send more troops to fight the Taliban – but must shun unrealistic goals.
The war in Afghanistan has far-reaching effects, from North Carolina's military bases to remote Asian valleys. This latest round in longstanding turmoil there has lingered since 2001 and intensified last year, when 151 U.S. troops died in the fighting. That was the most since the Bush administration efficiently ousted the Taliban regime that had sheltered Osama bin Laden.
Now Afghan war policy is getting an overdue re-examination. "Afghanistan is the fourth- or fifth-poorest country in the world, and if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose," Gates told a Senate committee. Instead, U.S. strategy must concentrate on denying terrorists an Afghan base from which to strike as they did on 9-11.
Incidents in which U.S. or NATO forces mistakenly fire on civilians (sometimes used as shields by Taliban militants) must end because, in Gates' words, "civilian casualties are doing us an enormous harm in Afghanistan." His advice is sensible if sobering, as President Barack Obama formulates his plans to defeat al-Qaida & Co. and catch bin Laden. Any new Afghan policy must above all be realistic.
That means blending increased aid to the government and people with deft handling of the Kabul regime's foes, aiming to separate diehard militants from Taliban followers. It means paying particular attention, with technology and special forces, to Afghanistan's leaky, Taliban-friendly border with Pakistan – and indeed, getting a better handle on the problem of a nuclear-armed Pakistan where terrorists take refuge. Elsewhere in Afghanistan, military force may not be the best way to accomplish our goals. Too many Western troops could be as dangerous as too few: outside forces spur Afghan mistrust.
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