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What is the U.S. mission in Afghanistan?



Critics of the not-yet-passed-as-I'm-writing-this economic stimulus package complain it's packed with wasteful spending that won't do anything to defibrillate the U.S. economy.

Among the spending singled-out as wasteful by critics: $25 million to improve trails for all-terrain vehicles, $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, and $335 million to help fight the spread of STDs. As someone whose lifelong dream it is to film ironic, noir-ish sex-ed videos in remote corners of national parks for screening on PBS, I'm feeling pretty good right about now.

As luck would have it, the big stimulus bill working its way through D.C. isn't the only economic lifeline being tossed my way by Team Obama. The Feds are also offering a generous subsidy to foreign policy columnists.

Unlike the stimulus, this subsidy is not being offered as a cash payment. Rather, the Obama administration's war strategy in Afghanistan is so unclear, newspapers have no choice but to keep paying people like me to help explain it. With unemployment in my home state at a 26-year high, all I can say is WOO-HOO! Yes we can!

In fairness, Obama didn't create the current mess and his White House may well soon emerge with a smart, sane, clear mission statement for Afghanistan.

But that doesn't change the fact that, as of right now, Obama has committed an additional 20,000 U.S. troops to a battle without any obvious goals.

This isn't a nitpick. It's genuinely unclear at this point what the U.S. or NATO want to achieve in Afghanistan. Are we going to stay until we vanquish the Taliban? Are we going to stay until Afghanistan's central government is able to assert control beyond central Kabul? Are we gonna stay until the Taliban sign a peace treaty with the U.S? Can the U.S. even afford to pay for any of the above options?

When we moved into Afghanistan in 2001, it was to fight al-Qaeda and to destroy the Taliban regime that hosted them.

Even though Bin Laden and his henchmen escaped across the border to Pakistan, the U.S. and its allies on the ground in Afghanistan still managed to clobber the Taliban. Within weeks of the U.S. invasion, the Taliban was removed from power.

Unfortunately, instead of following up with a peacekeeping and rebuilding program of suitable size, the Bush Administration declared victory and turned its attention to Iraq.

That's not gratuitous Bush-bashing. It's necessary and precise Bush-bashing.

A recent RAND Corporation study of U.S.-led peace-keeping missions quantifies Bush's failure in Afghanistan rather tidily.

The initial post-Taliban U.S. force in Afghanistan was about 14,000 troops. Afghanistan has 30 million people and is larger than Iraq. According to the mathematicians I pay to help me with this column, that's .47 of a U.S. soldier for every 1,000 Afghans. I don't know if you've ever seen .47 of a soldier trying to do anything, but it's not pretty.

By contrast, the successful U.S.-led peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Bosnia each had more than 20 U.S. troops per 1,000 of the local population. The U.S. occupation of Germany after World War II had 100 American troops for every 1,000 locals.

The RAND Corporation is not stocked with Bush-hating lefties. Its alumni list is a who's-who of Republican military and State Department muckety-mucks, including Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice.

It's no surprise then that the Taliban have been able to re-group and get stronger every year since 2002. They now control much of the rural area between Kabul and Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. In fact, a homegrown Pakistani Taliban (from the same Pashtun tribe as the Afghan Taliban) have asserted control over much of Pakistan. If anything, the Taliban are more dangerous today than when they hosted the 9/11 plotters. Today they're close to tipping nuclear-armed Pakistan into a full-blown civil war.

So, Obama's sending in 20,000 additional troops. Maybe even 30,000 more. Is it a good start? I don't know. A good start to what?

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