By Jules Witcover

The mounting U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, together with the avalanche of leaked military documents reporting failures on the ground there, are raising further doubts about accomplishing the mission to build a stable Afghan government.

It's fine for President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to say there isn't much new in the documents that chronicle military mistakes from 2004 to 2009. But the daily dribble of reported American deaths is a continuing fresh reminder of the human cost of the war now in its ninth year.

On top of that, new reports of the huge financial burden of maintaining not only the 100,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan but also propping the Afghan economy and security are adding fuel to the questioning at home of the mission itself.

According to a recent Pentagon report to Congress, more than $50 billion has already been spent in Afghanistan on these ancillary expenses, with Obama requesting $20 billion more for the next fiscal year. That's about the same amount as oil giant BP has committed to cleaning up the Gulf Coast oil spill.

The report follows another account of what amounts to the bribery of Taliban and Afghan tribal chief "toll collectors" on provincial highways to facilitate the safe passage of supply truck convoys. Private Afghan contractors have been among the facilitators, at American taxpayer expense.

Furthermore, the continuing reports of high-level corruption in the regime of President Hamid Karzai remain a nagging toothache for to the Obama administration as it pursues the fight against the remnants of the al-Qaida network that perpetrated the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

As in Iraq, waging the war in Afghanistan has led to the huge construction of American facilities, and with them tremendous costs for security meted out to private contractors. But unlike in Iraq, where most were U.S. firms, in Afghanistan most of the contractors are Afghans, taxing the American capacity to monitor the arrangements.

Although Congress has just approved Obama's latest request for $37 billion to fund both wars, Democratic disfavor was demonstrated in the House particularly. There, 102 members of his own party voted against it as the measure passed, 308-114, with almost solid Republican support. Backing the wars is the one clear area in which the GOP has abandoned its otherwise obstructionist policy against the Democratic president in this congressional election year.

The results of those midterm elections, in which deep Democratic losses are widely expected, will come only two months before Obama's scheduled reassessment of his Afghanistan troop surge, and his accompanying plan to start withdrawing U.S. forces just six months later.

If those Democratic setbacks occur, and especially if they should result in a Republican takeover of one or both houses of Congress, the president will be hard-pressed to hold to that pullout timetable.

Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, a leader of the antiwar bloc in the House, has argued that the leaked documents attesting to American military mistakes in Afghanistan support his case for U.S. withdrawal. "All of the puzzle has been put together, and it is not a pretty picture," he said. "Things are really ugly over there. I think the White House continues to underestimate the depth of antiwar sentiment here."

Meanwhile, Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Jim Webb of Virginia have sent a letter to Obama arguing that any plan to continue the war in Afghanistan as a campaign in nation building beyond rooting out al-Qaida should be submitted to the Senate for approval.

"My concern is, whether you want to call this nation building or not, it isn't sufficiently about al-Qaida," Feingold said. "Al-Qaida is operating not only in Pakistan but places like Somalia and Yemen. Putting $100 billion this year and even more next year into a ground war in Afghanistan has virtually nothing to do with al-Qaida. I don't think it makes sense for us to continue there. It is bankrupting the American people and I think that it plays into the hands of Osama bin Laden, which I assume is the last thing we want to do."

To date, however, Feingold's antiwar views have been routinely been ignored at the White House, and are likely to remain so.


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© Jules Witcover

World - Afghanistan: The Cost of Nation Building | Global Viewpoint