Recent reports on Afghanistan offer a cautionary lesson to those who believe this nation should ramp up its military involvement in Syria, Libya and other locales that have descended into tragic chaos.
And that aggressive attitude seems to include several Republican candidates for president.
According to The Associated Press, President Obama "is rethinking his plan to drop U.S. troop levels [in Afghanistan] from 9,800 to 5,500 before he leaves office next January."
The drawdown of troops was originally scheduled for the end of last year, with a further reduction to 1,000 by the end of 2016. However, the move was postponed because of deteriorating conditions in that country and the threat by Islamic extremists. Conditions since haven't improved, and a larger contingent of U.S. troops may have to remain for the foreseeable future to maintain order.
It's been more than 14 years since the U.S. sent troops to topple the Taliban, and there's still no ending in sight.
That's one reason to be skeptical of plans to boost U.S. military involvement in nations where central authority has collapsed and extremists are vying for control — unless we want to spend the next couple of decades ensuring security in those nations, too.
No wonder some of the most passionate advocates of a more aggressive foreign policy become strangely vague when asked for details of their plans.
In the last Republican debate, for example, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio both pledged to "destroy" the Islamic State — indeed to "utterly and completely destroy" it, in Cruz's words. That's an admirable goal, but it's also the president's stated goal, and these senators contend he's not doing nearly enough.
So what specifically would they do? Rubio said "a rebuilt U.S. military is going to destroy these terrorists," neatly ducking the question of how. Cruz said he would carpet bomb the terrorists like President George H. W. Bush bombed Iraqi troops into submission in the first Gulf War.
Saturation bombing "utterly destroyed the enemy," Cruz said — and he is certainly correct that it was very effective. But Cruz sidesteps the fact that a massive ground invasion occurred in the first Gulf War as well, and that Saddam Hussein's regime was spared to fight another day.
It may be that specific strategies rejected by President Obama — such as a no-fly zone over part of Syria — might help protect innocent victims of war. But it's dangerously glib to pretend that the one thing delaying the utter destruction of the Islamic State is a failure to exert presidential will. Short of dispatching a large number of U.S. ground troops, the rollback of the Islamic State will be slow, difficult and unpredictable. And our political debate ought to be mature enough to admit it.
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