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Obama’s quagmire

- The Washington Times - Monday, September 7, 2009

America is losing the war in Afghanistan. Rather than change course, President Obama is sending 21,000 additional U.S. troops. This will bring the total to 68,000 American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, bolstering coalition forces to 110,000.

The troop surge, however, will not work. Afghanistan has become Mr. Obama's Vietnam -- a protracted quagmire draining precious American blood and treasure. August was the deadliest month for U.S. forces, with 47 soldiers killed by Taliban insurgents. More than 300 coalition troops have died in 2009. This is the highest toll since the war began in 2001, and there are still four months to go.

The tide of battle has turned against the West. The Taliban is resurgent. It has reasserted control over its southern stronghold in Kandahar. The Taliban is launching devastating attacks in the western and northern parts of the country -- formerly stable areas. U.S. casualties are soaring. The morale of coalition forces is plummeting. Most of our allies -- with the exception of the Canadians and the British -- are reluctant to engage the Islamist militants. American public support for the war is waning.

The conflict has dragged on for nearly eight years. (U.S. involvement in World War II was four years, World War I less than one.) Yet, America's strategic objectives remain incoherent and elusive.

The war's initial aim was to topple the Taliban and eradicate al Qaeda bases from Afghan territory. Those goals have been achieved. Washington should have declared victory and focused on the more important issue: preventing Islamic fundamentalists from seizing power in Pakistan, along with its nuclear arsenal.

Instead, America is engaged in futile nation-building. Mr. Obama, like President George W. Bush before him, believes Afghanistan must be transformed by erecting a strong central government, democracy and a modern economy. Washington argues this will prevent terrorism from taking root and bring about lasting "stability."

Hence, following a recent reassessment of the war by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is contemplating deploying 20,000 to 40,000 U.S. troops -- on top of the 21,000 already pledged. Moreover, billions have been spent building irrigation canals, schools, hospitals and factories. Civilian advisers are being sent to encourage farmers to grow other cash crops besides opium poppies. Western aid money has been used to establish a massive Afghan army, a large police force and a swollen government bureaucracy.

Gen. McChrystal said this week that the situation is "serious," but not impossible. He still believes victory is within reach. His new strategy is to protect Afghan civilians from Taliban attacks. He also wants to create a lucrative jobs programs and improve local government services. The goal is to win the "hearts and minds" of the Afghan people. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says we must combat Afghanistan's "culture of poverty." Call it humanitarian war through social engineering.

Mr. Obama's policy will result in a major American defeat -- one that will signal the end of America as a superpower and expose us to the world as a paper tiger. Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. The mighty British and Russian armies were humiliated in drawn-out guerrilla campaigns. The country's mountainous geography and primitive tribal culture are ideally suited for insurgent warfare. By sending in more troops, Washington is playing right into the Taliban's hands: We are enabling the Taliban to pick off our forces one by one as they wage a campaign of attrition.

The Taliban blend with the local population, making it almost impossible for U.S. forces to distinguish combatants from civilians. American counterinsurgency efforts are thus alienating some of the locals. Initially welcomed as liberators, we are now viewed in some quarters as occupiers. Moreover, much of the West's aid money is siphoned off by greedy politicians in Kabul.

President Hamid Karzai's government is corrupt, venal and ineffective. It barely controls one-third of the country. It is despised by many Afghans for its brutality and incompetence. In addition, Mr. Karzai's vice-presidential running mate is a drug trafficker.

The West's efforts to forge a cohesive national state based on federalism and economic reconstruction have failed. Warlords are increasingly asserting power in the provinces. The country is fractured along tribal and ethnic lines. The center cannot hold: Afghanistan remains mired in anarchy, blood feuds and weak, decentralized rule.

U.S. troops should be deployed to defend U.S. national interests. Their lives should never be squandered for an experiment in liberal internationalism. In fact, such a policy is morally grotesque and strategically reckless.

Mr. Obama should quickly withdraw most U.S. forces from Afghanistan. American air power and small, flexible Special Forces units are more than enough to wipe out al Qaeda terrorists. The Taliban is too hated to reoccupy the country -- unless our huge military and economic footprint drives numerous Afghans into the evil, welcoming arms of extremists.

Afghanistan has been ungovernable and impoverished for centuries. No country -- including America -- can conquer or heal this strange, cursed land.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.