Bill Steigerwald

President Obama has become quite the hawk when it comes to the war in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama has approved a surge of 21,000 troops that will bring U.S. military forces there to 68,000. And recently he confidently promised that the U.S. will "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan." We wish the president lots of luck in achieving victory in a fiercely independent, stubbornly anarchic region that has dashed the hopes of Alexander the Great and the British and Soviet empires. Meanwhile, we decided to seek the wisdom of Ted Galen Carpenter. Carpenter, a vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including his latest, "Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America." I talked to him about the president's plans for Afghanistan on Thursday, April 2, by phone from his office in Washington.

Q: What is your knee-jerk reaction to President Obama's move to beef up our forces in Afghanistan? And now the top general there has asked for 10,000 additional troops for next year.

A: Obama's proposal was not as bad as I thought it would be. It was more limited in terms of military buildup and a healthy wariness about ambitious nation-building. But the military's request suggests that there is probably a tension between the White House and the Pentagon regarding the extent of the military buildup.

Q: Is any escalation of our military forces in Afghanistan sufficient to accomplish the president's goals?

A: It depends exactly what the goal is. If the goal is to disrupt al-Qaida, to keep al-Qaida off balance and on the ropes, then, yes, I think we probably can prevail with a reasonably sized military deployment. If on the other hand our goal is a total defeat of al-Qaida, plus a total defeat of al-Qaida's Taliban allies, plus trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern secular liberal society, then no amount of military force is going to be sufficient.

Q: What is the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and where do you see fault in it?

A: The strategy remains very vague, although Obama tried to sharpen it a little in terms of disrupting and defeating al-Qaida. That is the correct focus. I think it was very revealing that he did not say "disrupt and defeat the Taliban." That's holding out an olive branch to at least the more pragmatic Taliban elements.


Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..