Sunday, September 12, 2010

Support wanes for U.S. war in Afghanistan as doubts grow

Our 9-year-old war in Afghanistan has long had its critics. But now, a number of former officials who once supported the war — or were at least willing to give the U.S. military time to see if it could be won — are questioning whether the benefit of stabilizing Afghanistan is worth the daunting cost.

The doubters include Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the closest thing the United States has to an official "foreign policy establishment"; Leslie H. Gelb, his predecessor; and Robert D. Blackwill, a former aide to President George W. Bush.

"The current strategy isn't working, and it's costing roughly $100 billion a year," Haass, a former aide to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, told me last week. "It's time for a major recalibration: not an immediate withdrawal but a significant scaling down of our ambitions."

And last week, a group of 46 foreign policy experts issued a joint report arguing that the goal of building a unified, stable Afghanistan is beyond the ability of the United States, and unnecessary to boot. The panel, the Afghanistan Study Group, included both longtime critics of the war and some who supported U.S. policy until recently.

"A U.S. military victory over the Taliban is simply not necessary to protect U.S. interests," said one of its members, Paul R. Pillar, a former CIA counter-terrorism official.

In the general public, of course, support for the war in Afghanistan has been declining for at least four years. In a CNN poll this month, 57% of respondents said they opposed the war; only 41% said they favored it. But that was to be expected as the war dragged on and casualties rose.

"Elite" opinion is harder to measure. Who counts as a member of the foreign policy elite anyway? But looking only at people who have held, or might soon hold, foreign policy jobs in Republican or Democratic administrations, you find increasing skepticism about whether the war is winnable.

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