Nearly eight years ago, the United States with help from Britain launched an invasion of Afghanistan to expel the authoritarian Taliban regime and to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and his band of radical al Qaeda militants. Unlike our 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was a fool’s errand, the Afghanistan mission was a justifiable retaliation for the heinous attacks on humankind on September 11, 2001.
Notwithstanding the dismal history of Afghanistan, which has become known as the graveyard of empires, our October 2001 invasion was a just cause. Already littered with the ruins of expeditions there by great powers – the British Army in the 19th century, the Soviet Army in the 20th – Afghanistan has become America’s expeditionary frustration today.
An under-resourced stepchild to our insurgency efforts in Iraq, the military operation in Afghanistan is deservedly at the forefront of our strategic calculus now. Should we abandon the difficult tasks of destroying the Taliban and al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents or press on with stabilizing and securing a self-governing Afghanistan?
President Obama has already cast the die. He has inserted a new commander, General Stanley McChrystal; he has given him more troops, some 68,000 by year’s end; and he has asked for an operational review of the Afghan war by the end of August. If that yields a request for more troops it will almost certainly be granted. A new counterinsurgency strategy aimed at taking away the population from the enemy by occupying and holding built-up areas has been implemented and will require a larger force. The new approach is designed to gain the confidence of the Afghan people, by convincing them that we will secure them from the Taliban.
Will this be hard and will it take time? It is safe to assume we will be there for years and that the cost in blood and treasure will be high. Is it worth the price and continued commitment? To be sure, the answers are yes if you believe it’s in our national security interest to prevent the return of Afghanistan to serve as a safe haven and a breeding ground for terrorists capable of plotting and carrying out another mass murder like 9/11.
The challenges of making progress in that effort are daunting. The American people are exhausted by two wars for too long. The current economic crisis has taken us to the edge of reasonable endurance. The U.S. military is stretched far too thin.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries, shaped by ethnic and tribal rivalries. It is sorely lacking any hope of achieving a Jeffersonian democracy anytime soon.
Its current government, led by President Hamid Karzai, is deeply corrupt. Yet he is the odds-on favorite to finish first in the August 20 presidential election which means it could spell more of the same.
This is a moment when the convergence of fresh military and political thinking is critical. I optimistically call it a “creation point” – the opportunity for increased security by NATO forces and the demand of whomever is elected next month for dramatic and measurable improvements in governance. At the same time there needs to be a substantial increase in the size and competence of the Afghan Army and police force. This should come with a reflex assumption by the Afghan government that it needs to get busy in its efforts to build a stable state that takes more responsibility for its own destiny.
No doubt Afghanistan is a complex problem. Progress has been slow and limited since the 2001 invasion. Yet the stakes are exceedingly high. With a refocused strategy on several fronts, with loftier goals and increased expectations, and with a reliable means to an end, we can and must turn things around. Indeed we can experience reward for the virtue of the campaign against terrorism we have assumed.
Importantly this is the opportunity to demonstrate how well the United States handles the rebuilding of broken nations like Iraq and Afghanistan. We have done fairly well in Iraq, and we need to serve up Afghanistan as a positive reconstruction model too.
It can help encourage other nations and governments worldwide to work with us to stamp out terrorism in the nearly 60 sanctuaries where terrorists reside globally. We can’t do it alone.
How the U.S. handles the two litmus tests we’ve created will have a bearing on how are efforts are perceived by the rest of the world. These are classic public diplomacy case studies; opportunities to showcase our policies as justified, something the U.S. has not done well these past eight years. It’s critical to our future well-being as a nation to do so. We had better get if right because the whole world is watching.
F. William Smullen is the Director of National Security Studies at the Maxwell School and a Professor of Public Relations at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. He served as the Chief of Staff under Secretary of State Colin Powell.