The only words that come to mind as soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division prepare to depart for a year-long tour of Afghanistan are “God speed.”
These are America’s finest, but they are going into a foreboding situation. Maj. Gen. William Mayville, the division commander, made clear during a recent interview that he understands the challenges.
The soldiers will be undertaking the challenge of building governmental structures in a mountainous section of eastern Afghanistan that includes 450 miles of the volatile border with Pakistan. Their principal job there, as Gen. Mayville noted, will be facilitate development of “a viable Afghan government at the local, provincial and national level.”
That’s the challenge, all right, but saying it is a lot easier than doing it. The region we now know as Afghanistan probably has never had a viable national governmental structure founded on republican principles. Whether external influences — that would be us — can structure one that will outlast our own presence is by no means a certainty.
The recent murder of 16 Afghanis — apparently civilians — does not help the climate into which 1st Division troops will be walking. Calls by President Karzai for a reduced U.S. presence reflect the at-best ambivalent sentiments held by Afghanis for us right now.
Meanwhile, intensified calls for removal of our troops from within this country reflect both war-weariness and a loss of confidence that the nation-building mission can be successfully accomplished.
For his part, President Obama has tried to reinforce our commitment. But he has chosen to do so while simultaneously reinforcing the commitment to depart by December of 2014. You can try to do the one or you can try to do the other. But when you try to do both you raise the serious prospect of failing to do either.