9/11: Time To Remember And To Reflect On Where We Stand On National Security

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Eight years after the September 11th attacks, we have an opportunity to reflect on that tragic day and the lives that were lost in the attacks. It’s also a time to think about where we stand on national security and what threats the terror networks that attacked us eight years ago pose today and how we can best address them.

And I have to say that I’ve seen some worrisome signs in how we’re debating Afghanistan these days that maybe we haven’t learned to move beyond the raw emotionalism and simplistic debates to assess what the stakes are and how we as a country can most effectively keep our country safe.

It struck me in some of the reactions I got to this brief appearance I had on NPR’s “Morning Edition” this week, in which I reiterated a lot of the points I made with Hardin Lang in this article for Foreign

One Hill staffer, who shall remain nameless, wrote: “Aren’t we in or out?” That question was perhaps the stupidest question I have seen in a long time on Afghanistan, and it comes from an intelligent, informed person.

The reaction reminded me of one important point I took away from the Iraq debates of 2005-2008. One sign that the wheels are really coming off for a particular national security policy question is when the wise women and men of national security start discussing a particular question in terms one would use at a pep rally for football game. When you start seeing a certain set of terms on your op-ed pages like “win,” “lose,” ‘victory,” or “defeat” in talking about conflicts like Afghanistan, you know pretty much that the person has crossed the line from doing policy analysis to policy advocacy.

When you see people debating things like whether Afghanistan is a “war of choice” versus a “war of necessity,” you know that we’re for the most part just dabbling in rhetoric and not engaging in a clear argument that defines what it is that we are trying to do, whether we have the means to achieve those goals, and at what cost.

Somehow editors of many leading newspapers have allowed analysts to avoid defining clear policy objectives for Afghanistan and arguments that make the case for employing available resources to achieve those objectives.

Afghanistan is not a football game, and policy analysts and public servants should avoid the “rah-rah” pep rally approach to debating national security. The current debate, to the extent that we’ve even had one, leaves the impression that it’s either full blown nation-building counterinsurgency in Afghanistan with the maximum number of troops or get them all out.

The range of policy options in Afghanistan is much broader than that –- and the variables are much more numerous than the number of troops the United States has on the ground, such as:

– What is the current nature of the threats posed by terror networks from Afghanistan? What are the most effective and efficient means to address those threats?

– How do Afghan leaders gain legitimacy and power to govern? What are ways Afghan leaders can work to settle their differences on sharing power – both the Afghan actors that participated in the political processes like elections and the actors that reject those processes and seek to exert influence by other means (like the Taliban)?

– What are the most effective ways to enhance the capacity and willingness of Afghan leaders and institutions to govern justly and effectively? What is the capacity of the U.S. and other actors from outside Afghanistan to achieve tangible gains in Afghanistan, and at what cost?

– How much should the United States versus other actors around the world shoulder the burden in Afghanistan? Why isn’t Afghanistan viewed by more countries as a global security challenge, as opposed to just a national security issue for the United States and some other countries? (A few months ago, for example, I asked the question – where is the Muslim world on Afghanistan in this piece)

That’s just a start at some of the questions, but it’s rare to find discussions in the op-ed pages of the leading newspapers. Les Gelb did a few months ago in the New York Times, and Chuck Hagel’s recent piece raised important points, and Nicholas Kristof did a fine job this past weekend, but the main debate as thus far centered on the important, but not the only question, of U.S. troop levels.

At this point in Afghanistan policy, my view is that it would be extremely unwise -– actually foolish -– to send more troops or money without a stronger commitment from Afghan partners to fight the narco-trafficking that fuels the insurgency and deal with the corruption that makes Transparency International give Afghanistan such a poor ranking, among other problems.

I don’t think it’s such a radical position -– we need Afghan partners with the same sorts of commitment to the objectives –- if we are going to have any hope of achieving progress in Afghanistan. And it would be unwise for us at this stage to send more U.S. taxpayer money and troops without Afghan leaders making a stronger commitment to us. Given what I heard from Stuart Bowen and General Arnold Fields, the special inspectors general for Iraq and Afghanistan respectively, in this panel I moderated here at the Center this spring, I have serious concerns about our government’s capacity to use these resources wisely in Afghanistan, even before we consider the problems associated with possible partners in Afghanistan who might not have the same commitment.

But the reaction I got from some people to what I thought was a sensible proposition – that we need partners in Afghanistan as committed to the sorts of things we want to achieve – if we’re going to have any hope of seeing our investments achieve progress.

As the Obama administration moves towards making its next decisions on Afghanistan, here’s a plea: let’s move beyond the cheerleading pep rally sort of debate that we’ve seen in the op-ed pages and media, a debate that barely rise above the ‘less filling/tastes great” dialectic seen in this classic commercial.