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Leaning against the Afghan war

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows that 29 percent of Americans want to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. Thirty-two percent say we should decrease the number and 27 percent want us to keep as it is.

I feel much the same way.

Twenty-nine percent of me believes our commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, when he says we risk "mission failure" unless we put in another 40,000 troops or so. It further agrees that it would be a foreign policy defeat of historic proportions if we just up and leave.

Our friend Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, would last in office about three days after the last of our troops left. He would be replaced by fundamentalists who embrace the Taliban and would put out a welcome mat for al-Qaeda. Our desertion could very well act to destabilize neighboring Pakistan, which is, after all, a nuclear power. And never forget Afghanistan was the Petri dish for the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. It was where Osama bin Laden hung out, and may still for all we know.

Plus, we'd be viewed as a pitiful helpless giant by friend and foe alike. That's what 29 percent of me thinks.

Thirty-two percent of me says: "Now wait a minute. Haven't I heard this tune before, with different lyrics?"

I remember the 1960s, when we were being told that a place called Vietnam, which we couldn't find on a map, was crucial to the security of the United States. We had to beat the insurgency there -- it was called the Viet Cong -- or every state in Southeast Asia would fall to communism, like a row of dominoes.

And the way to beat them was to send over a few more troops -- 10,000 here, 40,000 there, always a few more -- to guarantee victory. It kept on like that until we had more than 530,000 American soldiers committed to the war, and we lost the war anyway.

And while that wasn't without consequence and our enemies did snicker at us, all of Southeast Asia didn't fall. Soviet Communism fell.

To those who say: "Afghanistan isn't Vietnam. The McChrystal strategy has worked, more or less, in Iraq. It deserves a chance here too. The military knows best," I reply:

"Afghanistan may not be Vietnam but it isn't Iraq either. Iraq was and is a sophisticated country with an industrial base and a literate population. We were able to train an Iraqi army to take over our duties, however imperfectly, and our next move will be to get out while the getting's good."

That situation bears little resemblance to Afghanistan, a tribal society rife with corruption (drug-trafficking accounts for about a third of its gross nation product). Nevertheless it has beaten back every invader since the time of Alexander the Great. Its army is 95 percent illiterate. How are you going to train an indigenous army if they can't read maps or instruction booklets?

It also helps to have an ally in an operation like this and we don't have one. The Brits have pretty much abandoned the field, and Mr. Karzai is a worthless and crooked politician. In addition, we backed the majority ethnic group in Iraq. We're backing the minority in Afghanistan.

Military leaders don't always know best. They're trained not to accept "mission failure," not even when it's the best of the bad alternatives available.

Yes, leaving would mean the return of al-Qaeda, but al-Qaeda is operating in Pakistan and other places these days. What's another safe haven more or less?

And lastly, what if we put in the 40,000 troops only to find out in a year we need more, just a few more, to put us over the top. Do you really want to walk that road again?

It's not an easy equation to puzzle out, which is why the rest of me is undecided.