Does anyone remember the war in Afghanistan? In October 2001 I was living in Connecticut, and I can still remember when President George W. Bush ordered the invasion. I supported the campaign in Afghanistan then, and I still do today. Sadly, I think many — including the current president — have lost faith in our efforts.
Although the war in Afghanistan was initially supported by more than 90 percent of Americans, the war’s popularity has since dropped with 60 percent of Americans calling for the withdrawal of troops from the embattled country. American casualties recently topped 2,000; presidential candidate Mitt Romney never mentioned Afghanistan in his speech during the Republican National Convention and President Barack Obama seems to have lost interest in what he once called the “good war.”
Americans should understand why our campaign is important and why the US should remain in Afghanistan for the long term. The president has consistently defined the mission in Afghanistan in very narrow terms as a campaign aimed at denying the Taliban a space from which to operate or preventing al-Qaida from overthrowing the government.
Is this really all we are there to do? The type of operation Obama and his predecessor have pushed is inadequate, limited and just plain lazy. Every time I listen to the president discuss the war in Afghanistan, he talks about “ending” the war but never winning the war — or the peace for that matter. The president should move beyond his myopic assessment of the war in Afghanistan and begin to cement America’s presence in the region.
Recently, the U.S. signed an agreement officially entitled Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. This agreement provides a framework for the relationship between the two countries. The pact calls for American aid and development for Afghanistan over the next 10 years. Unfortunately, the pact also calls for pulling out all combat troops by 2014. Withdrawing combat troops notwithstanding, the pact is a step in the right direction.
The war in Afghanistan is not a conflict being waged in a vacuum but part of a larger geo-political struggle to manage a very complex region in a very difficult part of the world. It’s not just about killing Taliban, or defeating al-Qaida or fighting terrorists. Our mission in Afghanistan should be about creating a functioning state, a stable political environment and an active economy. This type of work will require decades of active involvement and dedication to Afghani affairs.
A partnership with Afghanistan will significantly benefit America’s strategic position in Central Asia and beyond. Although most Americans may not see the positive subsidiary effects of maintaining a protectorate in Afghanistan, it is important they understand how America’s relationships with Iran, Pakistan, India, China and Russia are all at stake. Strategic triangulation is the objective of any state’s foreign policy, and America is no exception.
The military historian Max Boot recently suggested the U.S. will have to keep at least 30,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan after 2014 in order to maintain security and provide advisory and counter-terrorism capabilities. This type of commitment is reasonable and necessary in my estimation, given the importance of institutionalizing American influence in the region.
Let’s get this one right. I don’t want the U.S. to echo the failures of the Soviet Union or the British Empire before it, but that doesn’t mean we need to pull out and simply “end the war” as Obama would have us do. Ending the war accomplishes nothing and squanders any political, military or economic triangulation we have already secured or could potentially achieve. So let’s recommit ourselves to the American campaign in Afghanistan and solidify our strategic foothold in Central Asia and help build an effective state, economy and political system in a very troubled region.