Deadly endgame in Afghanistan


Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment support Afghan police during a cordon and search of Pana, Afghanistan, June 9, 2007.
President Barack Obama ’91 and U.S. Army generals salute the remains of soldiers, including Michael Weston ?97, during a ceremony at Dover Air Force Base, Oct. 29, 2009.

After eight years of exhausting war in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama ’91 outlined his plan Tuesday to achieve what he deemed the U.S. primary goals there and to bring the country’s involvement to an end. Stressing the national security threat still posed by Al-Qaeda, President Obama said that 30,000 new troops would be deployed to the battle-scarred Central Asian country, along with additional contributions from the U.S.’ NATO allies.

But he also outlined additional steps to be taken in the country, including program to turn some Taliban away from the movement, a “civilian surge” to shore up trust in the government, training of Afghanistan’s police and military, and a closer partnership with Pakistan. Despite the apparent open-endedness of these goals, Obama declared that the U.S. withdrawal would begin in July 2011, just 18 months from the deployment of fresh troops.

Obama’s address at West Point comes just weeks after another Harvard Law School graduate died in Afghanistan, on assignment with the Drug Enforcement Agency. According to a report in the National Law Journal, Michael Weston ’97 had already been deployed to Iraq as a Marine three times when he was sent into Afghanistan on a DEA raid on a Taliban drug and weapons bazaar. The raid was successful, but Weston did not make it home: his helicopter crashed while attempting to take off in thick dust.

Weston’s wife, Cynthia Tidler ’97, had been there before. Her first husband, Helge Boes, also died in Afghanistan – working for the CIA – in 2003. It was another accidental death – a grenade training misfire. Boes was also a member of the HLS Class of 1997. “He was selfless in a way that few who pass through Harvard Law School have the strength and the courage to be,” Weston, had written about Boes when the latter died. “He was the best of us.”

On the morning of October 29, it was Weston who was being remembered. His body arrived with those of fifteen others at Dover Air Force base, where Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder were attending the arrival of fallen soldiers for the first time. Weston’s body was the second off the plane. The iconic photo of Obama saluting the coffins that passed has since become iconic.

At Harvard, where he, Boes, and Tidler were close friends, Weston had considered becoming a patent lawyer. His father, Steven Weston, is a land development attorney at Alston & Bird in Los Angeles, and Weston was flying back to California for a summer associate position after his first year when he encountered a plane full of Marines. Impressed by their dedication, Weston joined up while he was still a 2L. He served as a judge advocate – never, if possible, flaunting his HLS credential – and then deployed to the fronts of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama stayed at Dover until 2:30 in the morning, speaking with the families of the deceased. Eventually, he spoke with Weston’s father. “Mr. President,” the elder Weston told the Los Angeles Times he’d said to Obama, “my son went to Harvard Law School just like you did.”

The president now faces a critical test of his leadership in his Afghanistan plan. Thirty thousand more American lives – not to mention those of the U.S.’ allies and of Afghan civilians who will suffer from the escalation of the war effort – will be on the line. And the proposal itself appears to be a gamble – that the additional troops can help substantially weaken Al Qaeda beyond its ability to strike the U.S. again, that the Taliban can be significantly weakened to the point at which it is in no position to threaten overthrow of the Afghan government, that the “civilian surge” will help restore credibility to the embattled and corrupt Hamid Karzai government in Kabul, and that closer partnership with Pakistan will reduce its ambiguous stance toward the Taliban. All this must occur before 2011, when Obama has promised to begin withdrawing troops.

Already there is deep skepticism. In his address at West Point, Obama attempted to dispel fears that Afghanistan would be “another Vietnam”  by pointing out three critical differences – the U.S. is supported by more allies in Afghanistan, is not facing a national resistance, and has a legitimate casus belli – the attacks of September 11, 2001.

But the terrain on the Afghan-Pakistan border, where Al Qaeda is said to have its base of operations – is even less forgiving than Vietnam’s. U.S. troops will deploy in greater numbers to Afghanistan without a new strategy for fighting on the ground. Obama’s attempt to woo low-level Taliban who lack ideological commitment to the cause is hobbled by a lack of existing infrastructure to incentivize or support such defectors. And Obama may be ignoring the regional element to the conflict: one of the reasons Pakistan has not hit the Taliban harder, some say, is its longstanding policy of using jihadist militias as proxies against its perennial South Asian rival, India.

Obama’s goals are certainly clearer than those that seemed to be guiding the U.S. in Afghanistan before. But they are still somewhat vague, and it remains to be seen how committed he will be to them. At the close of his speech at West Point, he noted that the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was hampering the U.S.’ economic recovery – and prosperity, he observed, financed the country’s power.

The balance he draws between this consideration, the deaths of American soldiers, and the diminishing returns of pursuing Al Qaeda into the deepest mountains of the Hindu Kush, or upholding even the sparsest nation-building program in Afghanistan, is likely to determine whether the withdrawal that begins in 2011 marks a quick U.S. exit from one of the longest wars in its history, or merely the beginning of its long denouement.


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