What Are We Doing In Afghanistan?

Alex Massie reads a downbeat assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and muses:

At the very least one might hope it will cause some people to ask some questions. We like to think of Afghanistan as the “good” war. But what does that mean? Allied troops have been in Afghanistan for six years now and a military victory remains elusive. Is this merely a matter of resources? If it’s not, then how useful are promises to pour more troops into Afghanistan? And what does victory look like anyway? How sustainable are current operations? In fact, are we more concerned with “winning” the “war on drugs” than with pacifying the Hindu Kush and Helmand province? To what extent is the drug war compromising our ability to achieve our other objectives? Furthermore, what sort of threat does the Taliban (and a rump al-Qaeda) in Afghanistan pose to the non-Afghan world? Is it containable absent a military occupation? How long should our current occupation last? Dare we tell the public? Can we win? What are the adverse consequences, if any, of winning?

I think what we need to do is step back and think a little bit more clearly about what it is we’re trying to do in Afghanistan. As of sometime in 2002, the Bush administration seemed to have decided that victory had already been achieved in Afghanistan, and it was time to start pulling resources out of there and throwing them into Iraq as Afghanistan moved into a consolidation phase. That was a terrible error. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that six or seven years later, we can just roll up our sleeves and rededicating ourselves to achieving the goals we were told we achieved years ago. The situation has changed, windows of opportunity open and close, and our mission has gotten very murky. Oftentimes when this kind of operation goes on long enough the goal becomes “succeeding” — or, rather, doing something or other that whoever’s in charge of the operation could plausibly label success. But we need to think, instead, more concretely about what it is we’re hoping to achieve in Afghanistan — specifically, does preventing portions of Afghanistan from serving as a base for terrorist operation directed at the United States really require us to establish an effective central state in Afghanistan?