It is the question of the day among policymakers delving into U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, and it came up this month in testimony on Capitol Hill. "Why," wondered Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Maryland Republican, in a House Armed Services Committee hearing, "is Afghanistan not the ultimate exercise in futility?" The country known as the "graveyard of empires" was, Bartlett pointed out, the widely lamented bane of both the British and Soviet armies.
It's not an experience that the United States hopes to replicate, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates took to the talk shows to explain just why he thinks Afghanistan isn't destined to be the graveyard of all empires. The Soviet Union's dismal failure in the country doesn't compare with America's current circumstances, he said. "They conducted a war of terror against the Afghans," killing 1 million people and creating 5 million refugees. The Soviets also tried "to impose an alien social and cultural change on the country. So the situations are completely different," Gates concluded.
He was not the only one pressing this point around town. There were some 150,000 U.S.-supported Afghan mujahideen fighting against the Soviets, Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in his testimony before the House Armed Services committee. Today there are an estimated 40,000 Taliban throughout Afghanistan. Biddle argued that the Vietnam comparison, another popular analogy, is also flawed. "The Taliban coalition we face is much weaker" than the Viet Cong, he said, as they are deeply divided and heterogeneous, with "substantial difficulty" coordinating their actions. They are "also quite unpopular among Afghans," he said.
The problem is that increasingly, so is the Afghan government. During the hearings, Chairman Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat, said that the current inability of the Afghan leadership to help their people and garner some measure of legitimacy throughout the country is "the elephant in the tent." Ideally, the Obama administration would like a reasonably stable partner in Afghanistan. But as President Obama convenes his war council again this month to discuss U.S. strategy, including whether to fulfill Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for more troops, U.S. officials have made no secret of the fact that they are growing more concerned with endemic Afghan corruption. This is particularly true in the wake of the widespread allegations of fraud in August's presidential elections.
The recounting of ballots is now finished and a runoff between the current president, Hamid Karzai, and challenger Abdullah Abdullah is now scheduled for November 7.
For now, the Obama administration is fielding fundamental questions about the war from lawmakers, the American public, and from within its own ranks. Among those who argue that there are benefits to having U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the question becomes, in self-described farmer Bartlett's parlance, "Is the juice worth the squeezing?" There is, too, the looming question of how many casualties the American people are willing to endure while waiting for a breakthrough.