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.