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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 11/23/09

Thoughts on Afghanistan

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Message Siegfried Othmer
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In the late sixties I was still persuaded by the strategic arguments for our staying in Vietnam and somehow extracting value from our exertions and sacrifices there. But as my draft deferment was running out, and as I watched the drum being turned to determine birthdate order for call-up, the issue was suddenly no longer abstract. Was I prepared to risk my life for the cause in Vietnam? Not really, when the question was put that bluntly, and while the drum was still turning. And if I was not prepared to risk my own life, then I could not very well ask others to go in my stead. As with me, so with many others: the existence of the draft made the Vietnam War a more visceral issue, and this fueled the anti-war movement.

Now that we are at a critical policy juncture in Afghanistan, I try to put myself into the same frame of mind I was in forty years ago. Would this cause be worth risking my life for? The answer is again no, and now there is even less ambivalence than there was before. Of course I support the efforts and sacrifice of our soldiers there, and we cannot simply "cut and run." The question is whether our military role should be significantly escalated under present circumstances. That's a matter not only of whether the goals are worthy, but of whether they are achievable in this fashion.

It can be argued that significant escalation of our military role in Afghanistan is unlikely to succeed, and may even be counter-productive. General McChrystal's request for 40,000 additional troops would allow the ratio of our forces to the insurgents' to be maintained above the 10:1 that is desirable for a counter-insurgency strategy. Now the total cost of inserting each additional soldier into the theatre is estimated at $1M per year. The incremental cost, given that the facilities are already in place, is likely about half that, or $500K/yr. That's the Pentagon estimate.

The cost of maintaining an insurgent in the field is probably no more than 10% of our costs, or at most $50,000 per year. On the assumption of the 10:1 ratio, this means that the insurgents can match our escalation even if there is as little as 1% leakage out of our funding of the Afghanistan effort and into their coffers. Surely the leakage is greater than that, and further, the insurgents are not entirely dependent on such leakage.

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Given this calculus, we are effectively funding and provisioning both sides of the conflict. Our adversaries should have no difficulty matching our every escalation at least at the 1:10 level. Further, the realities of asymmetric warfare work against us. While they rely on a low-risk IED strategy to demoralize our troops, we are forced to engage them at the risk of civilian casualties. The impact of loss of civilian life is cumulative, gradually wearing out our welcome, such as it is. Our very presence there is an effective recruiting tool throughout the region. Since we are being stale-mated now, there is no military solution to be found in escalation. At best, the military effort is a holding action that provides the opportunity for a political solution to be sought. Such a political accommodation does not appear to be in sight.

Afghanistan has not had strong national leadership within memory. Is it realistic to expect that we will succeed in establishing a strong central government there? History is not on our side in that regard. Two other current examples come to mind. The first is Yugoslavia, which fragmented soon after the death of strongman Marshall Tito. Subsequent to the Bosnian War, no one expects Yugoslavia to be put together again.

The second example is the European Union itself. This economic colossus, which taken together matches the US economy in size, nevertheless chose a virtual unknown as its first President. Most likely very few readers can recall—or know how to pronounce—the name. It is Belgian Prime Minister Herman von Rompuy. The predominant interest in Europe appears to be in keeping the central government relatively weak vis-à-vis the existing national leaderships.

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Similar trends are visible elsewhere. Belgium is split between two language communities. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Kosovo is split off from Serbia. The small Republic of Georgia is now fragmented even further. Chechnya sought independence from Russia over an extended period even at very high cost to itself. The political unity of Iraq is still in question even after all these years. A virtual Kurdistan appears to be forming in Northern Iraq. We see Balkanization everywhere: Kenya, Sudan, other African countries, etc. And yet we are placing our hopes on a weak central government in Afghanistan consolidating its control in the face of tribal divisions of long standing.

On both of the major issues, 1) the successful suppression of a native insurgency and 2) the establishment of a strong central government with effective control over its territory, history gives us very little support indeed, and none at all when it comes to Afghanistan itself.

It would seem to be far more promising to work bottom-up. As a first item of business, we should stop destroying the farmers' poppy crops. This could be the stuffing for a lot of poppy-seed cake, and the sap could be feedstock for the pharmaceutical industry. If we are positively engaged with the farmers, diversification of crops is more easily promoted. Beyond that, we could contribute to the building of local institutions that contribute directly and visibly to the quality of life. When we mainly help to underwrite local initiatives, the force multiplier is substantial. We have been accused of leaving Afghanistan in the lurch the moment our interests were served with the departure of Soviet forces, and again more recently after unseating the Taliban. We should not make that mistake again.

This takes us to the issue of opportunity cost. What are we not going to be able to do if we decide to commit to a military escalation strategy? The military option sucks up all the resources, including the attentions of our political leadership. The current budgetary costs also do not reflect the future costs of our returning veterans. My concern on this issue is partly informed by our ongoing work with returning active duty troops and veterans using neurofeedback brain training (EEG biofeedback). Even though traumatic brain injury and PTSD have now been formally recognized, the loss of function is still being under-estimated and the remedies are still forthcoming for most of them. There will be enormous legacy costs to deal with as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Our forces are well-trained, and the will to serve is remarkably intact, but the human brain is no match for the ravages of warfare. There is commonly a cumulative decline in function as the nervous system suffers numerous insults while navigating a high-stress environment. This has been well known since World War I. There is a distribution in vulnerability traceable back to the person's earlier history, but ultimately nearly everyone is affected. With long-term exposure to combat, 'the prognosis is psychosis.' The proper response has been to limit a soldier's exposure to combat to a few months.

By sending people on repeat tours of combat duty, we are asking more of our forces than we have the right to ask---given that we now know the implications. The wear and tear on our deployed forces are apparent to knowledgeable observers. We are increasingly in the position of General Robert E. Lee after Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. Looking to mount yet another charge, he was told that the forces were no longer available. "This has all been my fault," he said. And indeed it was. Now the fault of mounting yet another charge in the Afghanistan winter will lie with us. There must be another way.

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Siegfried Othmer is a physicist who over the last 33 years has been engaged with neurofeedback as a technique for the rehabilitation and enhancement of brain function. He is Chief Scientist at the EEG Institute in Los Angeles. Coming to (more...)

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