In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted at the end of September, only 11 percent of those polled believed that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should be the number one priority of the federal government. These numbers have changed little since then. However, a terrorist attack in the United States or a dramatic turn of events in Operation Enduring Freedom could quickly propel the Afghan War to the forefront of Americans’ minds.
President Obama is well aware of this and so has appropriately devoted considerable time to reforming his Afghan strategy. The way forward, though, is more complicated than 40,000 more troops or nothing. Afghanistan is indirectly of vital importance to U.S. interests and thus warrants a middle of the road approach.
Afghanistan’s importance is directly related to that of Pakistan. By all accounts, Pakistan is the center of the real “war on terror,” (Obama officially eliminated the term). The Pakistani tribal areas of South and North Waziristan are the home of the Taliban and most likely top Al Qaeda officials, including Osama bin Laden. Currently the Pakistanis are engaging in a campaign in South Waziristan to eliminate Taliban and some Al Qaeda elements. The Pakistani military must engage these territories because the tribal areas are, for the most part, Taliban-run territories within Pakistan, where the Pakistani government wields little power and the U.S. wields no power.
Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders operated both within these territories and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border prior to 9/11, at which point the top commanders moved mostly to Pakistan upon the U.S. led invasion. The AfPak border is essentially a lawless area from which 9/11 and all other major recent terrorist attacks, including the London train bombings, were launched. Because these lawless areas are a base for Al Qaeda operations, Pakistan’s government is in a fragile state and Pakistan is a nuclear state, Pakistan is the primary front in combating terrorism.
Afghanistan, therefore, is only indirectly related to the war on terror, and in an ideal world, more resources would be devoted to Pakistan than Afghanistan. Yet, the U.S. can only indirectly influence conditions in Pakistan and so the U.S. can only directly change the Afghan situation. A failed Afghan state would undoubtedly embolden Al Qaeda and its affiliates. A developed Afghanistan, however, similar to the one envisioned by a nation-building strategy, would not ensure that Pakistan could be stabilized. A realistic hope for Afghanistan, and one that is in line with our nation’s objectives and available resources, contains Al Qaeda and radical Taliban elements to Pakistan so that future efforts can be concentrated.
The debate about who our enemy should be, the Taliban or Al Qaeda, is not as clear as some make it out to be. While Al Qaeda planned and executed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it received sanctuary from the Taliban in the AfPak region. There is evidence that Al Qaeda has radicalized some Taliban elements and has trained them in suicide bombing and constructing IEDs. Taliban leader Mullah Omar has been Al Qaeda’s religious guide and there are some reports of marital ties between Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. The two organizations have undoubtedly grown together in recent years. Those who believe that under certain circumstances radical Taliban leaders will readily hand over Al Qaeda commanders should recall the Taliban’s refusal to do just this after the initial U.S. led invasion. Nuance is important though. There is a distinction between those who support the Taliban for lack of a better alternative (a viable alternative would be a viable Afghan government) and those who are ideologically aligned with the likes of Mullah Omar and, to a degree, Al Qaeda.
The goal of U.S. policy, therefore, should be to stabilize Afghanistan to the point where the Afghan government can run the country and prevent the Taliban from running wild, primarily on the Pakistani border. This objective recognizes that Afghanistan plays an important, albeit indirect, role in neutralizing Al Qaeda and its affiliates. This can be achieved by increasing the troop presence to secure crucial areas (population centers and the border), speeding up training of Afghan forces, garnering the support of current Taliban through jobs, money, etc., and increasing civilian resources. While this may not be a neat strategy that is conducive to talking points, it can effectively achieve U.S. goals without nation building.
This goal stops short of a nation-building plan, yet goes beyond a detached, distant, counterterrorism approach. A “middle of the road” plan has been decried as splitting hairs and wasting resources. As President Obama has stated, this is a straw man argument. It is not all or nothing in Afghanistan. Many point to the Iraq “surge” that established a tolerable level of security after years of instability. While the troop escalation was the most visible component of the “surge,” non-military efforts to bring Iraqis to the U.S. side was a necessary condition for success. A dramatic troop increase in Afghanistan alone will not bring about stable conditions. On the other end, an approach whereby there is a troop reduction and the U.S. targets high-level Al Qaeda through drone attacks and special forces operations is doomed for failure, because success in these tactics requires reliable intelligence that cannot be obtained without a strong presence on the ground. A middle approach attempts to achieve realistic goals, namely a stabilized Afghanistan that is able to control its key geographical areas and border, given the available resources.
The decision on a road for Afghanistan comes down to a cost-benefit calculation. The appropriate definition of success is an Afghanistan that is secure enough to ensure that the Taliban are weak, marginalized and cannot run rampant with Al Qaeda on the AfPak border and in key geographical regions. An all out counterinsurgency strategy increases the likelihood of stabilizing Afghanistan, but at great cost. A middle approach comes with a lower likelihood of achieving a stable enough Afghanistan, yet with lower costs. Afghanistan is vital to our national security interests only indirectly; that is to say to the extent that an unstable Afghanistan supports the Taliban and Al Qaeda network in Pakistan, the U.S. has a vital interest in seeing Afghanistan stabilized, to a degree.
U.S. foreign policy interests are not singular. Other foreign policy concerns include Iranian belligerence, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the rise of China and pirates, just to name a few. Furthermore, the U.S. military in general, and the Army in particular, is stretched rather thin, with some soldiers continually deployed since the start of the Iraq war. To think that such a large U.S. troop force would be committed to Iraq and Afghanistan for at least the entire first decade of the 21st century can be puzzling. Arguments on the merits can be made in favor of a 40,000-troop surge and all out counterinsurgency. However, this strategy comes with too many costs for an Afghanistan whose success is only indirectly related to vital U.S. interests in Pakistan. A more moderate approach that only moderately increases troop levels and enhances non-military means to create stability can achieve what should be modest U.S. goals.