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Fort Lewis pays steep price in Afghanistan

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Sep. 1, 2009 at 8:32 pm |
September 1, 2009 8:18 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

For Fort Lewis, it’s been a heart-breaking two weeks. In that short time, at least seven of its soldiers have been killed by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

Their deaths are part of a much larger picture. The war in Afghanistan – long a sideshow to Iraq – has become tougher and bloodier than at any time been since the Taliban were driven from power almost eight years ago. The United States and its NATO allies have seen their casualty rates jump sharply in recent months.

It’s not that the Taliban have suddenly become a vastly more formidable fighting force. If anything, the contrary is true. The allies are suffering more combat deaths because they are engaging the insurgents more aggressively.

President Barack Obama has ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. With their allies, U.S. soldiers and Marines are challenging the insurgents on their home territory, pushing to deny the Taliban the urban sanctuaries and opium fields the insurgency needs to survive.

Unfortunately, the Taliban has been doing much more than surviving lately; it’s been flourishing in the southern regions of the country. So much so that U.S. commanders describe the position of the allies and Afghan government as deteriorating.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who leads the American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has reportedly recommended a new strategy that will require the deployment of yet more American troops. There may be a rough parallel here to the “surge” strategy launched in Iraq in 2007 by President Bush.

Crafted by Gen. David Petraeus – who now oversees all U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the Middle East – the surge reversed three years of failure and helped the Iraqi government achieve a semblance of stability.

Under Petraeus, more troops were sent to Iraq and more blood was shed. But ultimately, the strategy bought enough peace to let the Iraqis patrol their own streets.

If Petraeus’ ideas had been adopted earlier, the United States might have been able to disentangle itself more quickly from urban combat in Iraq. This might have permitted a decisive response to the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.

Even today, the Taliban are far from invincible. The same generals who acknowledge the reverses in Afghanistan assert that the insurgents can still be defeated – with enough troops, with the right strategy. One part of the strategy is an expansion of the Aghan army and better training for its soldiers.

Ultimately, only the Afghans can win the fight for their own country. That was true in Iraq, too; there was no real success in that country until Iraqi security forces could replace Americans on the front line.

But first, U.S. forces had to buy time for the Iraqis. Americans paid for it with blood. As Fort Lewis well knows by now, time in Afghanistan is bought with the same currency.

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