Who to root for in Afghanistan?

President Hamid Karzai agrees to a re-vote

Posted: Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The following editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Last week, Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., took a long walk with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in the gardens of the presidential palace in Kabul. At the end of their Tuesday stroll, Karzai grudgingly agreed to a run-off election to settle the vote-fraud controversy over his Aug. 20 re-election to office.

Whether Mr. Kerry was carrying a threat from President Barack Obama, or whether Mr. Karzai simply caved in after four days and 20 hours of conversations with Mr. Kerry is not known. But the decision was the correct one.

It was correct for the Afghan people, who deserve to know that the fledgling democracy for which they've suffered and bled is legitimate. Correct for the world community, which, over the last eight years, has invested many lives and much time and treasure in Afghanistan. And correct for America, which must decide how much more grief, money and time it wants to spend on Afghanistan.

If Mr. Karzai had insisted his re-election was legitimate, it would have made life simpler for Mr. Obama. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has said the mission there could take as many as 80,000 more troops deployed not so much as warriors, but as civil-affairs troops. Their job of nation-building could take as long as a decade.

But Gen. McChrystal predicated his request on legitimizing an Afghan government widely viewed outside of Kabul as corrupt. No number of forces can succeed without that, he said. Whoever wins the run-off election on Nov. 7 - Mr. Karzai or former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah - must agree to conform.

Corruption is so deeply entrenched that even a clean election might be impossible. Voter registries are full of fraudulent cards. Voters are cynical and scared; in southern provinces, Taliban insurgents will make it dangerous to get to the polls.

Mr. Obama is getting a lot of uninformed advice. Last week, former Vice President Dick Cheney proved he knows as much about Afghanistan as he did about Iraq ("we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators"), accusing Mr. Obama of "dithering" over the decision. Too many people continue to believe the neo-conservative nonsense that U.S. military might can triumph regardless of cultural and historical impediments and the vagaries of asymmetrical warfare.

Here's a number worth some attention: $400. That's what the Pentagon says is the "fully burdened cost" of each gallon of fuel it uses in Afghanistan. The mountainous terrain, absence of pipelines and seaports and insurgent attacks on convoys mean that much of the fuel must be transported by air.

That's part of why it costs $1 billion to deploy every 1,000 troops to Afghanistan. That's a million bucks per soldier or Marine. It makes the math easy: 30,000 more troops, 30 billion more dollars.

The Marines say they use 800,000 gallons of fuel every day in Afghanistan. Currently, only 10,600 Marines are among the 67,000 U.S. troops in the country. You can do the math.

It adds up to a mess. Maybe Afghanistan is worth it as a bulwark against terrorism. Maybe we owe the Afghanis something after eight years. And we can't abandon our international role. But Americans must understand it would be a long, hard, dangerous and extraordinarily expensive mission with no guarantees. It almost makes you wish Mr. Kerry had stayed out of the garden.

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