By Brigitte L. Nacos
President Barack Obama has differentiated between a war of choice in Iraq and a war of necessity in Afghanistan. As he ponders whether and how many additional troops to send to Afghanistan, he has yet to reveal the objectives of the present NATO forces and the expected troop surge to an increasingly skeptical American public. Indeed, recent opinion polls show that a plurality of Americans wants a reduction in present troop levels, not an increase. The same is true for some prominent voices and unlikely bedfellows to the right (i.e., columnist George Will) and to the left (i.e., Senator Russ Feingold).
After his recent trip to Afghanistan, Senator Lindsay Graham said according to today’s New York Times that Afghanistan is the country “where 9/11 was planned and executed.” And he advised the president to explain more convincingly “the consequences of Afghanistan being lost and becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda.” Those are as valid arguments today as they were right after 9/11. Then the objective was to vanquish the leadership of Al Qaeda Central and of their Taliban allies and thereby remove the terrorist threat posed by Osama bin Laden and his directorate.
Although the Bush administration claimed victory after destroying Al Qaeda’s headquarters and camps and chasing Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders into Pakistan to the almost unanimous applause at home, bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and their circles were alive and well across the border—and still are. As to the real reason for going to war in Afghanistan, the allegedly highly successful intervention was a failure.
Obama was right, when he criticized his predecessor during the campaign for rushing into a war of choice in Iraq instead of concentrating on the war of necessity against Al Qaeda.
The recently stepped up use of special commandos and un-manned drones to target Al Qaeda and the Taliban in their Pakistani hiding places was a right decision and has achieved some success. This is the way to go. Pour more resources in fighting and defeating Al Qaeda Central for good, the real threat to the security of the U.S. and its allies. That was the objective in the fall of 2001and that should be the objective today.
If nation-building is the goal, President Obama and the leaders of other NATO countries with troops in Afghanistan are on a slippery slope. They will have step up their deployment levels, accept that more troops will be killed and injured, commit more financial resources for many years to come and without any guaranty, even without the likelihood, that an effective central government emerges in Kabul and will succeed in uniting the fragmented country.
This cannot be achieved by force on the part of occupiers, only by domestic actors. Afghans do not want to be ruled by outsiders.
But the goal of unifying the country by the moral authority of an effective central government led by a trusted leader is more elusive after the recent election frauds. Hamid Karzai who presides over a corrupt government and is in bed with drug traffickers and other unruly circles, is certainly not such a leader.
Perhaps no one can change the course dramatically. But I wonder whether things would look a bit more hopeful, if Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who was born in Afghanistan, had been a presidential candidate and won the elections in Afghanistan.
As it is, President Obama must make his decision and tell the American people what his endgame is in Afghanistan—defeat of Al Qaeda or nation-building. If it is the latter, he will have a hard time to convince an increasingly dubious public.