What Is The Mission In Afghanistan?

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, Research Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

afghanistan1.jpgThis morning’s news that Defense Secretary Gates has delayed the decision to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan “until President Obama decides what force levels he wants” provides an opportunity to ask some important questions about the U.S. involvement there. Many here in the United States are calling on the Obama administration to “get Afghanistan right” by not “escalating” the war and instead wind down the U.S. presence. Others, like VetVoice blogger and Army veteran Brandon Friedman, have ably questioned the core assumptions of the withdrawal movement, and defend the Obama administration. But the entire debate has thus far danced around the central question that ought guide our policy in Afghanistan -– namely, what kind of war we are fighting.

No one on either side really seems to know what kind of war we are fighting with the Taliban. Is it an anti-foreign insurgency, as those who urge withdrawal appear to assume? Or do people acquiesce to the Taliban because the U.S.-supported Karzai government is horribly corrupt and incapable of providing basic services, as the Kandahar-based Sarah Chayes persuasively argues?

If it’s the latter -– and I think it probably is –- then the Obama administration needs to figure out whether or not we think the Afghan government –- under Karzai or someone else –- can provide reasonably clean, competent governance, or whether it’s feasible for the U.S. and NATO to just do it themselves. If they conclude so, then the Obama administration should put forward a much greater commitment in personnel (military and civilian) and resources than is currently on the table in order to provide the security that is necessary to help deliver public goods. If the Afghan government appears unredeemable -– as Afghanistan scholar Barnett Rubin suspects -– then there’s not much the United States or its partners can do. In this case, no amount of troops or resources will help and we should just pack up and leave.

If we do wind up concluding that any amount of effort toward better governance is futile, the United States should realize the consequences of pulling out. It likely means that the Taliban, thanks to the backing of their allies in the Pakistani security establishment, will at some point wind up back in power in Kabul. These Taliban will likely be more rigid and extreme than the predecessor regime we toppled in 2001. And it’s unlikely that this development will take the militant pressure off Pakistan; the radical fighters now sweeping through Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province will have a secure rear and ready ally across the border.

We must have a deeper and more vigorous debate over long-term goals and strategy in Afghanistan and the region. Sending 17,000 more troops there is akin to applying a tourniquet -– we need to stop the hemorrhaging before we can figure out what to do. It’s not leaping ahead into an “escalation”; it’s buying time.