What Do We Want in Afghanistan?
President Obama has declared the war in Afghanistan to be his biggest foreign policy priority. To emphasize his commitment to the area, he has appointed one of America’s ablest (if not necessarily most loved) diplomats, Richard Holbrooke, to spearhead the American effort there and in Pakistan. But what do we want to accomplish there? What is (or are) the political objectives we seek to attain from the war?
These questions and their answers are crucial. Knowing what we hope to achieve is critical to knowing if we are achieving it, but beyond that, it allows us to ask two other, underlying questions: are the goals worth the effort? and do we have a reasonable chance to realize them? The answers depend on the objectives and they are, unfortunately, not clear cut at all.
There are, as argued in this space, two reasons for being in Afghanistan. The original reason for intervening there in October 2001 was to eradicate Al Qaeda, and since we failed in that, it remains the primary goal of U.S. policy in the region. The other goal is to prevent the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The reasons are to prevent the country returning to its status as the provider of sanctuary for Al Qaeda (a role they played before they were overthrown with U.S. aid in 2001) and to prevent their reimposition of a strict Islamist rule to the country.
How do these objectives stand up as political objectives worthy of American continuing sacrifice? While we can disagree on each, it seems apparent that they are of differing vitality to the United States. A strong case can be made for destroying Al Qaeda, and no American would dispute that a world without the bin Laden group would be a better place in American terms. The objective is clearly worthy, but the question is what the war in Afghanistan has to do with achieving it.
Two points can be made. The first is that Al Qaeda is no longer physically in Afghanistan, which suggests that, in any direct sense, American military efforts there are irrelevant to the objective. How, for instance, does securing Kabul from the Taliban promote the destruction of Al Qaeda? The only answer is indirect: if the Taliban is deprived of power in Afghanistan, then Al Qaeda loses a potential sanctuary. This assessment leads to the second point, which is whether a war in Afghanistan is the best way to deny Al Qaeda access to the country. Ambassador Holbrooke recently headed a group that suggested a better tack may be to try to negotiate with those Taliban who do not support Al Qaeda (and many apparently don’t), thereby denying Al Qaeda support from the Pashtuns who make up the Taliban and whose code of hospitality (part of the code of Pashtunwali) has provided protection for Al Qaeda in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. A war in Afghanistan, in other words, may not only not be the best way to defeat Al Qaeda, it may not work.
The other objective is the defeat of the Taliban. This objective loses much of its importance if the United States can negotiate a deal with the Talibasn to deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda, leaving the prevention of a cruel, medieval rule of the Afghans as the reason for our effort. No one denies that the Taliban has a very different view of how to rule that most Americans and many Afghans find offensive. It is also true, however, that the current regime is not particularly great shakes, either. The Hamid Karzai government is rated by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt in the world, and the Taliban advertise honest rule. One picks one’s poison.
The point here revolves around whether the outcome of the internal struggle is important enough to warrant American military involvement. In terms of the Southern idiom, does the United States have a “dog in the fight” over whether Karzai or the Taliban control Afghanistan? If either would suppress Al Qaeda, it is pretty hard to make a convincing case that the internal outcome makes much difference to the United States. Would we like to see the reimposition of sharia law and Islamic extremism in Afghanistan? Of course not! Do we tolerate equivalent conditions in other places without intervening with military force? You bet we do (try Darfur, for a contemporary example). Moreover, is it clear that a continuing American military presence will cause the failure of the Taliban and the success of Karzai? None of the reports are very optimistic on this matter.
What can the United States expect to gain in Afghanistan, and is it worth turning it into Mr. Obama’s War? Answering those questions positively requires answering the questions about the importance of the objectives and the ability to realize them. Getting Al Qaeda is unquestionably important, but it is not clear fighting a war in Afghanistan will contribute much toward attaining the goal. Preventing the return of Taliban rule may (or may not) be the result of an American war in Afghanistan, but is it worth it?