Last month was the deadliest month yet for British and American troops, and August casualties are running at a similar record pace. Among the recent toll is Marine Capt. Matthew C. Freeman, killed Friday.
Freeman was from Richmond Hill, a little town not far from Savannah on the Georgia coast. The Pentagon announced another three American deaths today.
By next month, Gen. Stanley McChrystal is expected to submit an official assessment of the situation in Afghanistan to President Barack Obama, including recommendations on future troop levels. And like most of those who have experienced Afghanistan first-hand, McChrystal is pretty sobering about what improvements might be expected in that country, even with a long-term high-level commitment by the United States.
So what do we do? The way ahead is perhaps best illuminated by two questions that sound similar but in fact may have two very different answers:
1) What can we hope to accomplish in Afghanistan, given limits on the resources, manpower and patience of the U.S. and its allies?
2) What must we accomplish, at a minimum, in Afghanistan, regardless of those limitations?
We know, in rough terms, the answer to the second question. Afghanistan must not again become a refuge for al-Qaida terrorists plotting attacks against the United States and its allies; Afghanistan cannot become a base from which the Taliban and al-Qaida attempt to overthrow the government in neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation struggling to preserve its democratic form of government.
Those goals, while complicated, can probably be achieved with a less intense commitment of manpower and resources than we’re currently making in Afghanistan. And no matter what course changes we make, those goals will remain our bottom line, the minimum that our national security requires.
Answering the first question is more difficult. Even the most optimistic observers don’t argue that we can rebuild Afghanistan into a modern, functioning nation-state.
For one thing, you cannot “rebuild” what never existed in the first place. Afghanistan, a nation of 28 million largely illiterate people, has never been a modern, functioning state, instead transitioning through the years from feudal state to client state to chaos.
It may yet be possible, however, to create a loosely federated Afghanistan with a central government strong enough to carry much of the burden of keeping terrorists from operating on its soil. Toward that end, McChrystal and others recommend a considerable increase in the size of Afghanistan’s military and police forces, funded by U.S. taxpayers.
The situation in neighboring Pakistan and in Iraq offer at least some cause for hope. The Pakistani Taliban are in a bit of a retreat, but only because the Pakistani government has taken it upon itself to act against a Taliban threat that it finally came to perceive as deadly. Likewise, the situation in Iraq began to only turn when Sunni Iraqis grew sick and tired of the jihadists among them and helped to oust them.
It is far from certain that the Afghan people and government will take a similarly proactive hand in their own self-interest, and unless they do, chances of long-term success are slim. By all accounts, the government of Hamid Karzai, the prime minister likely to be re-elected later this month, is thoroughly corrupt and undeserving of the loyalty of its people.
However, with renewed attention, additional resources and a new strategy and leadership now being brought to bear, the American military seems prepared to ask for another year to see what might be possible in that country. Given the circumstances, it’s a reasonable request.