More troops to Afghanistan: students, staff react

Story by McLean Bennett

Senior Whitney Zahn said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “got a lot more personal” for her when somebody she knew died in Iraq.

“If I could wave a magic wand and make the conflict go away and all the soldiers are at home and happy, I would,” Zahn said.

Still, she said she doesn’t quite know how to react to President Barack Obama’s recent decision to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. She said the death of someone she knew, as well as what she thought were pledges by Obama during his presidential campaign to get troops out of Afghanistan, have made her reluctant to applaud the decision.

At the same time, however, she said she can understand the move.

“On the one side it seems necessary because, if you automatically withdraw all troops in the area at once, then who knows what kind of situation that would lead to .” Zahn said. “But at the same time, it’s sort of alienating his party. They’re scratching their heads, wondering, ‘Well, you said something completely different when you were asking for our votes.'”

The 30,000 troops will supplement the 68,000 Americans already in Afghanistan, according to a White House fact sheet. The U.S. expects to maintain the increased troop levels for 18 months, during which time it plans to train Afghan security forces to eventually take over responsibility in the nation. Plans also call for reducing U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan beginning in the summer of 2011.

Tarique Niazi, an assistant sociology professor at UW-Eau Claire who has college degrees from universities in Pakistan, said Obama’s policy has “uncluttered” the mission in Afghanistan – a mission he said had previously been “clouded with chaos and confusion.”

“Before this strategy, we had eight years of no strategy for Afghanistan. Each year, we were changing commanders there, which hurt the continuity. As a result, in eight years we had eight one-year wars . ,” Niazi told The Spectator in an e-mail.

Obama’s decision has drawn mixed responses from people at UW-Eau Claire. Some, like Zahn, said they felt Obama had gone back on campaign pledges, while others said they supported his decision.

“You can’t just muddle through, you have to make a decision; either you’re getting out, or you fight to win. And getting out would be disastrous for us in so many ways,” said biology professor David Lonzarich, who said he supports the surge.

In a recent speech at the U.S. Military Academy at the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Obama characterized the initial phase of the Afghan war as successful.

“Within a matter of months, al-Qaida was scattered and many of its operatives were killed. The Taliban was driven from power and pushed back on its heels,” Obama said during the speech.

But since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, “the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated,” and al-Qaida leadership has found a “safe haven” in Pakistan, Obama said.

According to a White House fact sheet, the 30,000 new troops will improve the U.S.’s ability to train Afghan security personnel.

Niazi said the U.S. so far has done “moderately well” in its efforts to train Afghan security forces, but explained that ethnic imbalances inside the Afghan army and police force could lead to problems.

“We need to bring in more Pashtuns to fill the rank and file of the Afghan National Army,” Niazi said in his e-mail, explaining that the ethnic make-up of the army doesn’t reflect the national demographics. About half of the country’s population is made up of Pashtuns and only about a quarter of the population is made up of Tajiks, he said. But Tajiks outnumber Pashtuns in the army, he said, a problem that demands attention.

“This imbalance is in urgent need for a correction in order for President Obama’s strategy to succeed,” Niazi said.

Others at the university had different feelings about the troop build-up. Senior Isaac Orr said the conflict was “unwinnable” and that the U.S. should pull its troops out from the nation.

“I’m against having (troops) there at all,” Orr said. “We need to pull out immediately. I mean, there’s going to be a power vacuum, but there’s going to be that anyway.”

As of Wednesday morning, 855 U.S. military deaths had occurred and 4,639 U.S. service members had been wounded in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, according to the U.S. Department of Defense Web site.