WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration and Congress begin a heated debate about how many more American troops to send to Afghanistan, military observers, soldiers on the ground there and some top Pentagon officials are warning that dispatching even tens of thousands more soldiers and Marines might not ensure success.
Some even fear that deploying more U.S. troops, especially in the wake of a U.S. airstrike last week that killed and wounded scores of Afghan civilians, would convince more Afghans that the Americans are occupiers rather than allies and relieve the pressure on the Afghan government to improve its own security forces.
The heart of the problem, soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and some officials in Washington told McClatchy Newspapers, is that neither Barack Obama’s White House nor the Pentagon has clearly defined America’s mission in Afghanistan. As a result, some soldiers in the field said, they aren’t sure what their objectives are.
Current officials and military officers who are wary of escalation refused to speak on the record because they aren’t authorized to talk to the media and because doing so would be hazardous to their careers.
The administration’s stated goals in Afghanistan have ranged from eliminating the threat posed by al-Qaida — which is based in neighboring Pakistan, not in Afghanistan — and building a stable democratic state, depending on what administration official is speaking and when.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates attempted to define the administration’s strategy. He said that before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Taliban not only provided al-Qaida refuge, but also “cooperated and collaborated” with the terrorist group. Because of that, he said, the U.S. must ensure that a stable government exists in Afghanistan so the Taliban — and ultimately al-Qaida — can’t return.
The situation in Afghanistan, including last month’s still-inconclusive election and McChrystal’s review, have made it hard for the president to speak out more definitively, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution who was in Afghanistan for the August election.
Obama must do so soon, however, O’Hanlon said: “He can’t expect the country to continue to tolerate a mission that he himself has not explained.”
His choices are problematic. A withdrawal from Afghanistan would bring disastrous foreign policy consequences, but adding troops is no guarantee of success.
Although recent polls have found public support for the war in Afghanistan ebbing, aides said the president is committed to the effort but aware of the need to avoid wading into a quagmire.
“Momentum is a terrible way to make decisions,” said a senior White House official who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Obama will avoid decisions that “will bind the country forever,” he said.
The White House is due to send a series of benchmarks for measuring progress in Afghanistan to Congress by Sept. 24, where support for the effort is eroding among liberal Democrats and even some conservatives.
Officials, however, concede that no amount of additional American force can by itself ensure success.