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In need of Afghan policy

Throughout the presidential election, there were several points that one could expect to hear at an Obama rally. Health care needed to be reformed, policies should help those on Main Street, not just those on Wall Street, and that the Iraq war should be brought to an end with a renewed focus on the “right war” in Afghanistan. On two of these issues, there has been undeniable action, though the efficacy of the measures should be questioned. On Afghanistan, however, President Obama has been a failure to his voters, to those under his command and to America.

There is never going to be a way to definitively know what kind of strategy will produce results in Afghanistan. It is important to understand what our goal is in this country, half a world away from Afghanistan. To my understanding, at first it was to find and kill Osama Bin Laden, but since then (now almost eight years into the conflict) there has been undeniable mission creep. The US military and its NATO allies have kicked out the Taliban only to see them come back. Al Qaeda has apparently relocated to Pakistan and Bin Laden has not been found or killed. The recent elections were marred by fraud and President Karzai’s run-off opponent dropped out. News coming home from Afghanistan is beginning to sound similar to the news coming from Iraq at its worst with 14 Americans dying on a single day about two weeks ago.

Through it all, President Obama has appallingly failed to make a decision on his strategy in Afghanistan for the next several years. While it is necessary to take a step back and consider options when attacked by former Vice President Dick Cheney for failing to make a decision quickly, enough is enough. The war in Afghanistan was President Obama’s number one foreign policy issue when he was campaigning. He should have known all sides of the issue.

Instead, it seems to have been a surprise that General Stanley McChrystal’s report on Afghanistan requested many more soldiers. The general in charge of the Afghan theater requested at least 40,000 more soldiers to fully implement the counterinsurgency strategy initially endorsed by Obama. The basic tenets of counterinsurgency sound relatively simple: protect the population. This was the strategy that General Petraeus implemented to such great tactical success in Iraq when he oversaw the surge of military forces into that country. Now, McChrystal is attempting to replicate Petraeus’ success.

To make counterinsurgency effective in Iraq, General Petraeus required a huge infusion of soldiers so he could begin moving them off huge forward operating bases and into villages. Their old mission involved driving routine patrols in convoys of armored humvees and tanks. Their new mission was to live among the population and to conduct patrols on foot, to take their sunglasses off and show Iraqis that American soldiers were not some monolithic foreign enemy.

Thomas Ricks’ history of the Iraq War highlights General Petraeus and the tactical success he squeezed out of Iraq. Unfortunately, the political breakthroughs necessary to make the surge a total success have not yet happened years later. This is what General McChrystal is facing. He needs to implement a counterinsurgency strategy that can succeed in winning over the population. He needs the additional soldiers to protect common Afghanis who are just trying to live their lives. Based on the tactical success that emerged in Iraq after this new strategy was put into place, there is hope that the same will happen in Afghanistan. But General McChrystal, the soldiers on the ground, the people of Afghanistan and President Obama all desperately need political breakthroughs, as well.

I am a lowly college senior, basing what I write on foreign policy blogs, news articles and books about the region. I do not know if this new strategy will work out in the end. I do not know if an alternative strategy, such as reducing the number of American soldiers and focusing only on small special operations forces to contain Al Qaeda, is a better option. But, I do know this: lives depend on the decision. President Obama’s presidency has been marked by taking the middle ground on the stimulus, on health care and on Wall Street reform. President Obama knew coming into office that all eyes were going to be on Afghanistan. He should have been prepared for all possible outcomes. Mr. President, the American people, the men and women putting their lives on the line and the Afghan people just fighting to live a normal life, need your decision.

Nick Milano is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at nmilano@student.umass.edu.

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