Um, what’s our mission in Afghanistan?

Are we committed to nation-building, or are we just going to take out Al Qaeda? Here’s Obama announcing his new strategy in March:

I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.

Here’s how the Pentagon described our objective in its new report to Congress:

The focus of the new strategy is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida and prevent terrorist and extremist use of safe havens in either Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Yet in the same paragraph, the Pentagon explains,

The focus for U.S. forces will be to 1) to provide security for the Afghan people and 2) to train Afghan security forces so that they can take an increasing role in operations. To meet our strategic objectives, the United States and its allies will pursue a fully resourced counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign which leverages the diplomatic, informational, military,and economic assets of the United States and of the international community to diminish insurgent capability, maintain security, deliver services, and build economic infrastructure and human capital. The COIN campaign consists of sequenced operations across three lines of operation: 1) Security; 2) Governance; and, 3) Reconstruction and Development.

If you read Obama’s speech carefully, you’ll notice that he also shifts subtly from counter-terrorism to nation-building:

To advance security, opportunity, and justice – not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces – we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers. That is how we can help the Afghan government serve its people, and develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs. That is why I am ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground. And that is why we must seek civilian support from our partners and allies, from the United Nations and international aid organizations.

Strategically, there is a certain logic to Obama’s approach. The best way to defeat Al Qaeda may be to build a strong and well-governed Afghanistan. I certainly believe that.

Politically, the White House approach is disingenuous at best. The President wants to sell one war and fight another. He wants to apply the comprehensive approach that reversed our failure in Iraq without subjecting himself to criticism that he wants to build a Denmark on the Euphrates (or in this instance, the Hindu Kush).

If things go well in Afghanistan, he might be able to get away with it. If they go poorly, and we have to provide more money and more troops, Obama will find himself subjected to the same criticism as Bush. If the President wants to fight a long and hard war all the way to the end, he shouldn’t tell voters that we only have limited objectives.

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