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Does the U.S. Still Have a Vital Interest in Afghanistan?

Gabriel Schoenfeld & Brian Katulis

Obama called the war one of necessity, so why is he so reluctant to increase troop levels? Brian Katulis and Gabriel Schoenfeld debate:

Does the U.S. have a vital interest in the war in Afghanistan anymore? What are we to make of President Obama’s reluctance to increase troop levels there even though he has called Afghanistan a “war of necessity”

More Troops Aren’t a Magic Bullet

Point: Brian Katulis

The United States absolutely has a vital interest in making sure that Afghanistan doesn’t slip into further chaos. The Bush administration took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, and as a result, the situation there deteriorated. The fundamental question isn’t the end goal; the real policy debate is about the most appropriate and effective means toward the end of stabilizing Afghanistan and achieving the goal outlined by President Obama: “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”

At this stage, Obama’s reluctance to increase troop levels is not only appropriate but necessary. Asking tough questions about additional troop requests is appropriate given the serious questions about our partners in Afghanistan. Any possible new counterinsurgency strategy in dealing with Afghanistan is dependent on having a government there that not only has legitimacy in the eyes of its people but shares the same goals that we have.

After what I witnessed on the ground in Afghanistan last month as an election observer — the elections were fraught with widespread fraud — I have a strong skepticism that there is a partner that shares our goals. Many of the leaders in Afghanistan’s government have ties to drug traffickers, and the drug trade funds the Taliban insurgents who are fighting the United States and its allies. Afghanistan is also ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world, according to several independent groups, and millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been lost due to this corruption.

Given these realities, it would be unwise for the United States to send more troops before getting a stronger commitment from Afghanistan’s leaders to reduce their country’s drug trade and to fight corruption. And absent a strong commitment from Afghanistan’s leaders, the United States should consider all of its options for keeping Americans safe and develop a Plan B. Full-blown armed nation-building in a country awash in corruption is not the only way to keep Americans safe. We owe it to our troops and taxpayers to look at all options.

Troop levels are one important variable, but those levels are not the only variable to consider when debating how to achieve the goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States has tripled the number of its troops in Afghanistan since early 2007; simply sending more is not a magic cure.

Finally, any strategy must also deal with what is an even bigger challenge, the country to Afghanistan’s east. Pakistan is where key Al Qaeda leaders migrated over the last eight years. Its territory is used by terrorist networks for training and plotting attacks; two recent alleged terror plots in the United States involved people traveling to Pakistan for training.

Obama is doing the right thing in carefully weighing his options in Afghanistan, and as he does so, he should keep in mind the challenges next door in Pakistan. The threats are real, the interests are strong and the real debate is over the means to achieve our goals in both countries.

As Obama Hesitates, Victory Becomes Less Likely

Counterpoint: Gabriel Schoenfeld

Thanks, Brian; I completely agree with you about the vital interests at stake in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, I am not nearly as sanguine as you are that the Obama administration shares our assessment. Indeed, to judge by some of Obama’s recent pronouncements, a deep fog of war seems to have settled over the White House.

To my mind, our two overriding military objectives should remain as they were: to keep the Taliban out of power and on the run, and to destroy any and all remnants of Al Qaeda. The Bush administration must certainly bear historical responsibility for its shortcomings and mistakes. It did not succeed at either objective over an eight-year slog. But neither did it completely fail.

Yet now we are approaching that dangerous point. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commands U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has just offered a grim assessment: “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term [the next 12 months] … risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” Obama now occupies the Oval Office. If we do fail in Afghanistan over the next year, the responsibility will be his.

As a presidential candidate, Obama called Afghanistan “the central front in the war on terror,” and he pledged to supply the resources needed to turn things around and “defeat” Al Qaeda in a “war of necessity.” Now, as president, the rhetoric has remained the same; but the policy, as it appears to be shaping up, does not match his utterances.

Indeed, it was clear to all concerned when he put McChrystal in command that the president thought a counterinsurgency strategy involving more troops offered the best chance to reverse the deteriorating war effort. Yet by calling at this juncture for a review of his own fundamental strategy and declaring that no decisions have been made, he appears to be getting cold feet.

If Obama reverses course because of the tainted reelection of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the corruption of his government, then he is breathtakingly naive about the nature of governance in that portion of world. To agonize, as you do, Brian, about whether we have a worthy partner in the government of Afghanistan, is to be blithely indifferent to the real choices before us. Abandoning Afghanistan to its fate under the Taliban because its present government is less than pure would be a foreign policy blunder of the first magnitude, with catastrophic effects on Pakistan and the entire region.

Unfortunately, leading Democrats in Congress are suggesting that the United States should cut its losses. Polls show that Obama’s base in the Democratic Party is ready and eager to say farewell to a distant war in a faraway land. I fear that these opinion trends explain what Leslie Gelb, in an important Wall Street Journal Op-Ed article, has called Obama’s shift from “confident policy proclamations” to “temporizing statements.”

The harsh reality is that temporizing statements can themselves do immense harm. One of McChrystal’s observations about Afghanistan is quite pertinent: The “perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents.” Hesitation in the White House is thus a critical element in the strategic equation, one that could lead to a rout.

“On the plains of hesitation bleach the bones of countless millions who, at the dawn of victory, sat down to wait … and waiting died,” poet George Cecil said in 1923. As Obama ponders away precious time, he should contemplate the poet’s words.

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