Helping America Find Its Keys

There’s something deeply troubling about the fact that the seventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks should mark the day on which 2008 became the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. After routing al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts from their base in Afghanistan in late 2001 and 2002, in a military intervention that was broadly supported both in the United States and around the world, the Bush administration turned its attention — disastrously — to Iraq. The effort to build a stable Afghan state has suffered as a result, as CAP analysts Caroline Wadhams and Lawrence Korb showed in a 2007 report.

Dexter Filkins recently had an excellent story about the resurgent Taliban, and how Pakistan’s “largely ungoverned tribal areas have become an untouchable base for Islamic militants to attack Americans and Afghans across the border.”

There’s some indication that President Bush seems to have recognized — as always, a few years late — the severity of the situation in Afghanistan. Yesterday the New York Times reported that “President Bush secretly approved orders in July that for the first time allow American Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government.” While it’s necessary to eliminate insurgent bases across the border, the fact that the U.S. has to do so in the face of protests by the Pakistan government shows how poorly the Bush administration has managed that relationship over the last seven years. U.S. strikes also risk increased destabilization in Pakistan, which just underlines the fact that, after seven years of incoherent policy, we are left with few good options.

Yesterday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen warned Congress that the United States is “running out of time” to succeed in Afghanistan, but that sending in more troops will not necessarily guarantee victory. CNN reported:


Mullen said he is convinced the Afghanistan war can be won but said the U.S. urgently needs to improve its nation-building initiatives and its cross-border strategy with Pakistan.

“We can’t kill our way to victory, and no armed force anywhere — no matter how good — can deliver these keys alone. It requires teamwork and cooperation,” Mullen said.

Mullen is basically making an argument for a progressive national security agenda here, one which encompasses more than military solutions for what are in fact economic and political problems. There’s no way that the United States can confront challenges like instability in Pakistan and standing up a state in Afghanistan all by itself, and other countries have shown that they will be less inclined to help us if we exhibit the sort of “with us or with the terrorists” nonsense that has characterized the Bush administration’s approach to national security. All this seems startlingly obvious, yet it’s not, because some people think the Bush administration’s approach has been just great.