The ongoing deliberations among President Obama’s national security team and congressional leaders are necessary to determine the best possible means of successfully conducting the war in Afghanistan. But what must guide these discussions and take precedent for all parties involved is a thorough understanding of the objective and a clearly outlined mission. President Obama needs to define his goals candidly when it comes to counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and nation-building, especially as he considers sending additional troops to bolster these efforts. Does the United States want to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban, or does it want to eliminate Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization and find some modus operendi with the Taliban? Only when the objective is fully understood by the White House, State Department, Pentagon and congress can President Obama shape the overall war strategy and assemble the resources necessary to wage a successful campaign.
As critical as this process is to achieving a positive outcome in Afghanistan, America’s national security interests are being compromised by the ideologues from both parties who have polarized this war for petty political gain. What should be an in-depth analysis of American military strategy has become a partisan talking point for media outlets and congressional leaders to spur over. Is it just a coincidence that every single Republican Congressmen favors the immediate dispatch of an additional 40,000 American soldiers as requested by General McChrystal, even before they know the exact purpose and placement of the troops? And each of their Democrat counterparts—including Vice President Biden—has rejected the expansion of troops before a consensus is made as to the objective of the war. One thing is clear however; following the initial success of overthrowing the Taliban in 2001, the war of necessity in Afghanistan was neglected as focus was shifted to the war of choice in Iraq. This negligence allowed the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup and remobilize their fighters as they entrenched themselves in the tribal areas in Pakistan, forcing the United States to wage anew what could have been concluded a few years ago. As the attention now shifts back to Afghanistan, it is essential this time the goals are realistic and attainable, with an exit strategy in mind. This war is undoubtedly dangerous and complex, so anything less than a full consideration of the options available would put thousands of lives unnecessarily at risk.
President Obama is correct in trying to gather advice from those on all sides of the spectrum who know best what strategy the United States must adopt to carry out a perilous war of this magnitude. He should not be rushed to make a decision that will inadvertently cost hundreds, if not thousands of American lives. It is equally important to emphasize that this is not just an American war. In the final analysis, the Afghan people and their government—and the same can be said about Pakistan—must learn how to deal with internal insurgents and terrorist groups that are out to terrorize their citizens and undermine their government just as much as they want to undermine American and allied efforts.
The surge took place in Iraq when it became abundantly clear that the additional troops would turn the tide of the war. Moreover, what has succeeded in Iraq is the building of the Iraqi military and internal security forces to the level that allows the United States to decide on a time line for withdrawal. In addition, the United States was able to persuade the Iraqi insurgents to join the political process. This is not the case with the Taliban and is not likely to change with the current policy. The war in Afghanistan has outlasted the war in Iraq and we are not anywhere near having an exit strategy.
For this reason, the United States must focus on a number of key issues essential to the security of United States and the well-being of the Afghan people. The first is a targeted counter-terrorism strategy, as this directly affects all civilian and military efforts in the region. The Obama administration’s counter-terrorism strategy thus far has shown tremendous success by inflicting substantial losses on Al-Qaeda, and rendering the organization considerably weaker than it has been in many years. Because the Taliban are indigenous and there is no realistic possibility of eliminating them, to deal with them in the long term the United States must fashion a strategy that could lure the majority who are not ideological to give up the fight and join the political process.
The second tier of this strategy must address the reconstruction and revitalization needs of the Afghan people on a community level. One of the best ways to deter the Taliban is to provide Afghan villages with jobs and resources so that people have a stake in their communities. American efforts in this capacity, through the Provincial Reconstruction Teams and work with local Non-Governmental Organizations, have been successful thus far, and more importantly they are welcomed by the people. In his March address of US strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama stated, “To advance security, opportunity, and justice…we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers. That is how we can help the Afghan government serve its people, and develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs.” In this respect, the US needs to devote its aid and resources to the NGO’s and Afghan initiatives that have been effective in impacting the communities and building up the economy.
To sustain these initiatives and to allow the United States to settle on a realistic exit strategy, the United States must increase its efforts on training the Afghan military and internal security forces. These forces need to be significantly increased and trained so that they will be capable of facing and effectively dealing with these threats on their own over time. The current Afghan military—with only 93,000 soldiers—should be tripled in size, as should the police. However difficult, expensive and time consuming the build-up of the Afghan security apparatus is, it remains an absolute necessity. Without it there is no hope that the United States can extract itself from the war in Afghanistan with any certainty that Al Qaeda and the hard-core Taliban fighters will not reconstitute themselves and pose significant threats to the United States and its allies. This is where the Obama administration along with its international partners, especially the EU, ought to allocate the training personale and necessary funding.
The Afghan and Pakistani people do not want to see their country ravaged by an endless war, nor do they want to see hundreds of thousands American troops effectively occupying their land. What they need is both military and economic assistance, but certainly not provided on an open-ended basis. The United States and its allies must see to it that the money is spent for the right purpose and that any troops sent over have a clear-cut strategy in mind. President Obama is getting extensive advice from a variety of sources and military experts. Whatever decision he makes must be one that is clearly defined with an end-game in sight.