Accompanying the historic news that U.S. troops are leaving Iraq is this news: The United States is promptly escalating its efforts—8,000 new troops now—in Afghanistan. (U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan are expected to swell from 38,000 to 60,000 by the end of the year. A force that size will cost $70 billion a year to maintain.)
This change in strategy from the Bush years dates back to Sen. John Kerry's mantra in 2004 that we "took our eyes of the ball" by leaving the job unfinished in Afghanistan when we charged into Iraq on fabricated premises about WMDs and Iraq's connection to al Qaeda. During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama updated Kerry's rap, saying we needed to "get off the wrong battlefield in Iraq and take the the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
And now as President, with his big announcement to U.S. marines at Camp Lejeune yesterday, he's moving policy in this direction.
In general, I think most Americans see the wisdom in changing course: We need to get out of Iraq so we can focus on Afghanistan. But here's a fundamental question: What is the focus in Afghanistan?
The point Obama continually makes is this: We cannot let al Qaeda operate from safe havens in Afghanistan or in the mountainous border region with Pakistan where they can plot against America—as they did in the late '90s and leading up to 9/11. The bad guy in Obama's equation is al Qaeda. Fair enough.
But what of the Taliban?
I recognize that al Qaeda's ability to operate is connected to Taliban rule, and so there's some overlap in a struggle against the Taliban and al Qaeda, but Obama needs to be clearer than this. Mixing and matching the fight against al Qaeda with a fight against the Taliban could make for a muddled and disastrous foreign policy. Ultimately, are we trying to eliminate al Qaeda or are we in it for the long haul against the Taliban?
These are two drastically different questions. And different wars. Routing out al Qaeda is a much simpler, less expensive proposition. Defeating the Taliban is a commitment that will drag on.
For example, if we eliminate the Qaeda bases, but the Taliban still dominates, is the U.S. willing or interested in fighting the Taliban to eliminate the Taliban's brand of despotic rule?
Is Obama willing to embark on a full-fledged ground war to crush the Taliban's persistent and ascendant movement; a movement that has traction in the Middle East, especially in Afghanistan were it can offer an attractive alternative to the lawlessness and wreckage of warlords and corrupt governments. (A similar story is unfolding in Somalia.)
In talking to the American people about this, Obama needs to tell us who we're fighting and why. Are we just interested in protecting America by zooming in on Al Qaeda? Or are we on a mission to defend Democracy and women's rights (and other pending casualties ... music?) in a Taliban dominated Afghanistan?
Unlike al Qaeda, the Taliban is not an expansionist movement (beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan, that is.) They are isolationists and don't care about the U.S. They want to bring Islamic law to Afghanistan and Pakistan and that's it. Is that our business? Is Obama willing to fight a war against that? That's a much different mission than routing out Qaeda havens in Taliban territory.
As Obama ups the troop levels and "takes the fight to Afghanistan," I want to know what the ultimate goal is. Is this a limited war to protect Americans or is this a larger war to protect Afghanistan from the Taliban? The latter is an admirable cause.
But is it desirable or doable?
Last summer, I had drinks with two U.S. army guys who had fought in Afghanistan and done cross border raids into Pakistan. I was pretty hawkish on Afghanistan at the time, but the way those two veterans shook their heads as I talked, has stuck with me. And that's what making me ask that question.
A recent cover story in Newsweek goes in-depth on the war in Afghanistan. And the sidebar makes this important point:
The most important departure from current thinking would be to make a distinction between Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The United States is properly and unalterably opposed to Al Qaeda—on strategic, political and moral grounds—because its raison d'être is to inflict brutality on the civilized world. We have significant differences with the Taliban on many issues—democracy and the treatment of women being the most serious. But we do not wage war on other Islamist groups with which we similarly disagree (the Saudi monarchy, for example). Were elements of the Taliban to abandon Al Qaeda, we would not have a pressing national-security interest in waging war against them.
In fact, there is a powerful military advantage to moving in this direction. Al Qaeda is a stateless organization that controls no territory of its own. It can survive and thrive only with a host community. Our objective should be to cut off Al Qaeda, as far as possible, from its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Deprived of local support, Al Qaeda would be a much diminished threat. Now, it is certainly true that some elements of the Taliban might be closely wedded to Al Qaeda. But others are not. Even the most hard-line Taliban—the so-called Quetta Shura led by Mullah Omar—have at various points made overtures to the Afghan government, always asking that they be distinguished from Al Qaeda.