By Benjamin Hand
This past week, President Obama informed the American public that he intends to send a large number of new troops to reinforce our existing force in Afghanistan, a figure currently reported to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000. This is fewer than the 40,000 that General McCrystal reportedly asked for, but more then the 10,000 that many early reports estimated that President Obama might send. Regardless of the political motivation behind why President Obama may have decided to send a substantial number of new troops to Afghanistan, the question that needs to be asked is- what exactly are we hoping to achieve in Afghanistan, and in what way does an increased troop level accomplish that goal?
This past week, President Obama, referring to his decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, said that he wanted to “finish the job” we started. It seems only natural to now ask what exactly that job was, and how exactly the President and his military and national security team plan to finish it. Throughout the course of the invasion and occupation, our given reason for being in Afghanistan has been a moving target. Post 9/11, it was framed as a national security issue. We were told that we had a valid imperative to invade because Afghanistan was a safe haven for Al-Qaeda, and disrupting that state of affairs was vital to the security of the United States. There was surely a great deal of truth to this claim, though the case could be made that using small elite units in combination with predator drones might have been a more effective means of capturing or killing high-ranking targets such as Osama Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. However, as it has become clear that many of the high-ranking targets had slipped into Pakistan, including both Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, the dialogue on Afghanistan has shifted away from counter-terrorism and towards nation building.
When it became apparent that there was no longer a substantial Al Qaeda presence in the country, new rhetoric was employed to justify our continued presence. We started to hear about the necessity of nation-building in the region, and we were told that the mission was to build a stable liberal state that would be capable of withstanding any attempt by the Taliban to retake power. It was argued by many in national security community that the Taliban had to be defeated and driven from power, because as long as they maintained influence in Afghanistan it meant that Al Qaeda would always be able to find a safe haven in the region. Again, this isn’t to say that there isn’t a substantial amount of truth to these claims. It seems clear that Al Qaeda was able to find a safe haven in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, and as of current reports it seems that they no longer have the ability to plan operations in Afghanistan.
But what does that mean for national security in the United States and the European Union? There have been several terrorist attacks in the European Union since the invasion, planned not in Afghanistan but within the countries where they took place. So global terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, have not been deterred because they lack a safe haven in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban government.
It is now important to return to the question – what are we attempting to “finish” in Afghanistan? Is our goal to assure that Al Qaeda will no longer be able to find a safe haven in Afghanistan, and therefore decrease their ability to orchestrate attacks against the United States? If so, then it seems that such a goal could be accomplished with a small number of elite troops and predator drones to carry out strategic strikes against specific targets. It has been well documented that the United States had the ability to carry out strikes against Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan before 9/11, but choose not to. If our stated goal is to build a stable, liberal state in Afghanistan, then we need to be honest about what that might mean, and why we are doing it. A liberal government would benefit the Afghan people, but forming such a government surely can’t be our only reason, for there are dozens of countries that could benefit just as much from economic assistance and state building. Are we ready as a country to spend 20-30 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in the region as peacekeepers and nation-builders? Perhaps the answer is yes, though I would argue that it is neither economically feasible nor politically possible. We should be clear about these points before more troops are deployed. When President Obama says that we need to finish what we started, he should be able to tell us what the end result will look like.