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July 3, 2010

Start talking to get troops home on time

Cary Brunswick
Daily Star

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As our combat mission nears an end in one war, the big debate today is when — or if — we'll ever be able to end our fighting in another.

And our latest escalation in Afghanistan could prove to be just as unwise as our invasion of Iraq more than seven years ago.

The timetable set by President Obama for ending combat in Iraq calls for getting troop levels there down from about 90,000 today to 50,000 by the end of August. Those "support" troops are supposed to be pulled out by the end of next year.

It is still not clear, however, that the factional violence and sparks of civil war created by the U.S. invasion will be doused or fade as combat troops depart. The battle _ both violent and political _ for control of the country likely will continue for years.

Other than ousting Saddam Hussein, that's apparently what we achieved for the $900 billion of taxpayers' money spent or approved for spending through September.

While Obama pledged during the 2008 election to end former President Bush's war in Iraq, he also vowed to shift the military focus to Afghanistan. It was a move that many saw as an opportunity, missed by Bush, to respond legitimately to the 9/11 attacks and continuing terrorist threat posed by al-Qaida.

The Afghan "surge" announced last year sent an additional 30,000 troops to fight the former Taliban leaders and other factions not willing to go along with the government we helped install. U.S. troop levels are expected to reach 100,000 by the end of the summer, with another 30,000 contributed by NATO.

Optimistic that the additional forces would turn the tide, the U.S. set a timetable of next summer for the beginning of a troop withdrawal in Afghanistan.

Despite the added troops, however, the war effort appears to have made little progress in quelling the reorganization and rising influence of the Taliban, who were targeted for allowing al-Qaida to get up terrorist training bases in the country.

Then, last week, the commander of the war, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, after badmouthing the Obama administration over the war's success or lack thereof, was replaced with congressional approval by Gen. David Petraeus, who had led the Iraqi war effort.

Petraeus told lawmakers this week that under his command the troop-supported air strikes blamed for so many civilian casualties would be stepped up.

We need to back up the troops, but killing and maiming innocent civilians have contributed to popular opposition to our effort.

And, as Congress debates new funding for the war, commitment to Obama's timeline for the start of troop withdrawals is becoming vague at best. Both military and political leaders are starting to realize that they could be getting into a quagmire that may make the Iraq war look like a daytrip.

You would think we'd have learned by now that social and cultural factors in different countries sometimes work against the logic of military strategies. We just can't understand how so many Afghans could be sympathetic to the Taliban, who when in power harshly enforced their ultra-conservative, fundamentalist brand of Islam.

The Taliban in 1996 brought stability to a nation that had suffered through more than a decade of strife involving Soviet intervention on behalf of a communist ruler, and several more years of conflict as various leaders fought for control.

The Taliban instituted brutal penalties for moral and penal violations, closed schools for girls and ended vocational opportunities for women. Strict dress codes were enforced with lashings.

But many of our Muslim allies over the decades had imposed similarly strict conditions, without our interference.

Sometimes, however, it seems a rigid social structure is preferable to anarchy and constant warfare, which was the case in Afghanistan.

The success of our mission to rid the beleaguered nation of al-Qaida, subdue the Taliban to keep them from gaining power and leave an Afghan government free of corruption and brutality is not likely to occur anytime in the near future, new generals notwithstanding.

If we want to avoid what could turn into a decades-long conflict, we should use the timeline already established to work out a negotiated settlement that guarantees the security of the U.S., which was our main reason for attacking Afghanistan in the first place.

Let's get rid of al-Qaida, and get the other factions, including the Taliban, to the table. There may not be a good reason why the Taliban should not be part of an Afghan government once our war against them has ended.

And we should know from many experiences that if we do not pull all sides together to work out a solution that meets our security needs, the war likely will not end.

Cary Brunswick of Oneonta is a freelance writer and editor, and editor of