The National Catholic Review
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Afghanistan, we are told, is the “graveyard of empires.” Visitors to the recent roving exhibit “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul” will know that description is an exaggeration. For Alexander the Great and his followers, it turns out, established colonial cities across northern and western Afghanistan. So not every foreign expedition has stumbled into disaster, like the ill-fated British and Indian troops annihilated in 1842 in the First Afghan War. Nonetheless, today Afghanistan does represent an extraordinary military and diplomatic challenge for the United States. The terrain is rugged, the climate inhospitable to invading armies. Its population consists of at least nine ethnic groups who speak more than 30 languages. Its tribal culture is, to put it kindly, highly defensive and its people skilled in irregular warfare. When the illegitimacy and corruption of the government in Kabul and the weakness of its police and military are added in, waging a counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan is a test of extraordinary complexity.

President Obama’s long, drawn-out deliberation on Afghan strategy is not just due to his rational temperament, as his kinder critics have suggested. It is demanded by the multiple challenges Afghanistan presents any outside power seeking to shape events in what Maryann Cusimano Love aptly called “a fictional state” (Am. 11/16). In this context, deliberation is an asset, but it cannot assure a happy outcome. Whatever the strategy, however focused the goals, war and nation-building are both chancy undertakings. The principal issue that we believe should be weighed as the nation moves ahead is the human capacity of the U.S. military to wage this war.

Military capacity is far more than mere numbers. For one, the same men and women have been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for several years—for three, four, five rotations. Never has a U.S. army served so long in the field. The toll on the troops and their families is enormous. Military suicides are at the highest level ever. The Medical Corps and the Veterans Administration are struggling to cope with the high number of active and retired soldiers and Marines afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder. The Defense Department itself worries about the effects of extended deployments on the judgment and behavior of its personnel in the field, and with reluctance it has repeatedly lowered the qualifications for enlistees. Can we continue to ask the same men and women to bear the burdens of conflict year after year? Can we afford to have volunteers who are less qualified physically and educationally to wage a conflict as complex as this?

President Obama should be taken at his word when he says he puts the welfare of our men and women in uniform at the forefront of his duties as commander in chief. Continuation and expansion of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is likely to stress the military beyond the breaking point. Generals were talking four year ago of the need to rebuild capacity and morale. The only way we see to provide the personnel for a protracted engagement in Afghanistan is the renewal of the draft—for both men and women—perhaps within a program of compulsory national service. There will be objections about the time it will take to gear up to train new personnel, about the risk of the country turning against the war out of resistance to a draft. But a renewed draft is the only way to provide fresh troops of sufficient talent for this special battlefield. If it will take too long to train them, then we must face the conclusion that we are not up to the protracted struggle we face in Afghanistan. If a draft is unacceptable to Congress and the public, then we ought to admit our grasp has exceeded our reach and resign with honor as the world’s policeman.

What’s more, the fight in Afghanistan requires a restructuring of the military. General Stanley McChrystal’s recommendations include an overlooked passage noting that the composition of forces needs to change. We need many more translators and cultural experts among their numbers. Even if these specialists were to be trained up from among the present personnel, we would not have them in time to see a near-term reversal of negative trends in the field. The troops, moreover, have not proved they will respect the specialists and work with them effectively, another task that will require long-term commitment. There are grave reasons to remain engaged in this conflict, but if we lack the capacity we need for the long haul, if we are unwilling to expand the circle of sacrifice more broadly within the country, then we should not ask our weary volunteer military personnel, many of them members of the National Guard and the Reserves, to fight it for us. Willingness to accept a draft is the test of the nation’s commitment to what is coming to look like a war without end.

Comments

MaryMargaret Flynn | 12/4/2009 - 8:42pm
I've been for a universal two year period of National Service for all citizens since before 9/11. It was my privelege to be a commissioned officer in the regular Army for 9 years, stationed only in the USA but as a psychiatrist really knowing the "wounds of war" that our citizens carry home with them and last until death. Then I worked for the VA for 15 years. We will preserve liberty and active citizenship only if there is a law drafting all citizens, by birth or naturalized; also serving in the military itself should make the person and family elligible for naturalization, to national service for two years. What a great place the army is meeting and working with people from so many different parts of the county, diferent back grounds, different educations. It will help form an American identity shattered now enclaves of people associating only with like minded people. It would bring the rich, the middling class and the poor all together. It would help stop the hatred toward immigrants. The National service could be in the military or the Peace Corp or the CCC or with non profits. WIthout the two year draftee to the army, with out government servants having experienced mandatory National Service, we will continue to misuse and expand the Military Industiral complex which Dwight Esienhower warned us against; only proliferatings with neo-con ideology impoossible "missions", militarization, mercenary armies and more misadventures and death after deaths. Our "war of necesity" was being funded in the 1980ies-lots of CIA covert activities. It just didn't start on 9/11. It is part of the cold war-we armed the different Muslin peoples to fight the SOviets out of Afganistain and now those arms are aimed at us. Does anyone read history anymore! Citizens need to participate with their minds and bodies. Sure beats fuding the corporations spending in the mall and Wall Marts. Now is the time to initiate Universal National Service for all citizens, after HS, after an AA degree, after technical training, after college, married or not. It is the least we can do as Americans to perserve our liberty and freedom. A good place to expand our horizons and contribute to the common wellware of the USA. The MBA's might learn that people don't fit into financial equations and that increasing income disparity along with increasing militarism is destroying our freedoms. And the Military is being used to protect the powerful and the rich, not the majority of us.
john vercellone | 12/4/2009 - 2:38pm
OLD ADAGE SHOULD GET RESPECT,YOU CAnT HAVE YOUR CAKE AND EAT IT.THE USA CONVENTIONAL MILITARY HAS BEEN DISARMING FOR MORE THAN THREE DECADES UNILATERALLY(THERE IS NO TREATIES LIKE THE RUSSIAN USA NUCLEAR DISARMENT AGREEMENT WHICH MAKE A LOT OF HORSE SENSE THEY NEVER NEEDED OVER 5000NUCLEAR WEAPONS EACH AND THEY ARE GOING DOWN TO ABOUT THAT LEVEL..ALSO BE AWARE THAT THERE IS MUCH PROOF THAT NYC FBI AND JUSTICE/FBI OFFICES IN PART IN WASHINGTON DC KNEW OF THE PLAN TO USE PLANES AS FLYING BOMBS AGAINST THE USA,THE PILOTS WOULD GET INSTRUCTION FROM USA PILOT SCHOOLS,HOW SMALL AND INEXPENSIVE TO MAKE BOMBS TO KNOCK DOWN THE BIGGEST AIRLINERS,A PREDICTED TERRORIST SABOTAGE OF TWA800 THREE DAYS BEFORE THE ACT THAT KILLED OVER 240AMERICANS.(REFERENCE "COVER UP" pETER LANCE(5TIMES PULLITZER)NO LATER THAN SPRING OF 1996 AND MAYBE EVEN MUCH SOONER,EVEN THE TERRORIST NOW BEING TRIED IN NYC AS MASTREMIND OF 9/11 WAS KNOWN TO THE ABOVE IN 1996..THERE WAS OTHER "priorities"??? more important than biN laden,al queda.
Jim Lein | 11/28/2009 - 11:19pm

Comment 1 brings up a good point about the drafting of women. Comments 2 and 3 fail to address the problem the article presented: the stress and physical and mental illness of our troops.  Each deployment increases the chances of PTSD and suicide and also homocide when back home.  We need to address this problem.  Otherwise we are demanding too much of our troops.  We can't just recycle them right down the drain. 

I was drafted in 1963 and served my two years, including a year in Korea.  While there, the rumor was we were all being extended and sent to Nam.  We weren't.  Instead, more troops were drafted.  Those sent to Viet Nam stayed only one tour of twelve months.  They could extend or volunteer to be sent again. But they weren't ordered back a second or third or fourth or fifth time.  How can we discuss overall political or military strategy and fail to discuss how we are treating our troops, how we are grinding them down?  

 

John Pedler | 11/28/2009 - 4:07pm
The one way out of Afghanistan:

It is imperative for the US, Europe, and Nato to work together to internationlise efforts to stabilise Afghanistan. As Mrs Clinton remarked at the Hague conference on Afghanistan in March (80 states attended): "The range of countries and institutions represented here is a universal recognition that what happens in Afghanistan matters to us all".   

Afghanistan holds one trump card: as well as the US, Europe, Russia, and India, all of its neighbours, China (and so all the permanent members of the Security Council), Pakistan, Iran, and the two ex-Soviet states, all have a major interest in its stability. So does Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, Syria and in varying degrees all the Muslim countries from Morocco to Indonesia.

Together these countries have the political, financial, and religious resources to put immense pressure on the various parties involved. Now faced with Western exit stategies, all would wish to play their role to ensure subsequent stability. A major diplomatic campaign to coordinate such international efforts could well succeed given the Obama administration's drive to replace confrontation with cooperation. 

TM Lutas | 11/27/2009 - 3:51pm

The Moro rebellion was between 1899 and ended in 1913, 14 years later. The idea that "Never has a U.S. army served so long in the field" as it has in the 8 years since we've had operations in Afghanistan is simply not factually correct. The open warfare in Afghanistan was shorter than our 1899-1902 war in the Philippines but the current phase of insurgency is currently shorter. 

The standards of enlistment are designed to accommodate a legal fact, that the US Congress authorizes a certain troop strength. When too many people apply for admission in the armed forces, the standards rise so we can be fair to all and not violate the law. When the numbers drop, standards drop again. While it is true that since 9/11/2001 standards have been lowered, they have also been raised at different times during the past 8 years. The net effect depends on where you draw your starting line. We have a much better military than we did when we ended the draft in the 1970s. We have a much worse military than after the Reagan defense buildup was wound down with the 'peace dividend' that raised standards in order to drop head count. 

If the Congress would authorize another 100,000 troops and the funds needed to train them, we could fill that requirement using the voluntary system. We would likely need to drop standards to do it but restarting the draft is not necessary. We would end up with more 2nd chance cases and probably our casualty rates would tick up somewhat but we are nowhere near the level of military personnel we had at our Cold War peak, something we could do again if we wanted to. 

The draft is often used by those against military activity in a cynical ploy to recruit many to their side who simply do not want military indentured servitude. I would hope that America magazine would be above that and merely is uninformed about how force levels are set and how we could have a much larger military and used to have exactly that just a few decades ago. 

6294802 | 11/27/2009 - 11:13am

This is a daring argument, so thanks for putting it out there. The number of tours of duty we're asking our service personnel to do is disgraceful. It's getting to the point where our service personnel are like the British airmen during WW2; flying mission after mission until their luck, or sanity, runs out.

I really have to question one point: The idea of drafting women for the Afgan war is reckless. We're talking about a country where the Taliban burns down girls schools as soon as we can build them and throws acid into women's faces. We should not be drafting women for this war. Maybe that will come... but not in a situation where cultural fators would make doing so a great and highly dangerous liability. My sister works in international aid, and she goes into some pretty dangerous places; but there are some places where her agency won't send her-such as the northern tier of Nigeria or the Sudan. That's not chauvinistic-her group is very progressive-it's just common sense.

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