EDITORIAL - Costly escalation: Can the U.S. afford a longer Afghan war?

Written by Susan Mannella on .

The day after Pakistan announced it had reached a truce with Taliban militants, President Barack Obama said the United States will increase its military forces in neighboring Afghanistan by 17,000, on top of the 36,000 already there.

The truce covers the Swat Valley, a restive region of Pakistan near the Afghan border where Taliban and al-Qaida fighters are established. NATO, which has 55,000 troops in Afghanistan, denounced the agreement for providing a "safe haven" to the alliance's enemies.

The question raised by the troop increase is whether the United States can pursue expensive economic measures at home while trying to win a major war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. America still doesn't know the parameters, the objectives or the end game of that war.

If the greater troop presence in Afghanistan means Mr. Obama has signed on to escalating that war, the United States, in the first weeks of his administration, will find itself still deeply engaged in a war in Iraq, plunging deeper into a war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and grappling strenuously with economic survival at home.

No one would argue that the war in Afghanistan will be easy or quick to win. After all, American forces have been there since 2001. It is clear that the Afghanis are becoming eager for the United States to leave, as their own civilian casualties grow (up 40 percent in 2008), and the people begin to turn against the government of President Hamid Karzai.

The situation in Pakistan is inextricably linked to the war, as is amply demonstrated by the lethal U.S. drone attacks on targets in that country. Mr. Obama named a special representative for the region, including Afghanistan and Pakistan in his purview; that signalled his understanding of the interrelated nature of the two countries. Pakistan's internal political situation is complex, made doubly difficult by its possession of nuclear weapons and prickly relationship with neighboring India, which also has nuclear weapons.

The United States will have a hard time paying for greater military involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan at this time. The U.S. defense budget already is $513 billion, with another $66 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The cost of the Obama administration's economic recovery program is trillions of dollars and rising almost daily.

America can't just keep spending without counting the cost. The priority of these issues should be obvious.

First published on February 19, 2009  

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