President Obama will soon make what could be the defining decision of his presidency. The course he chooses in Afghanistan will tell us a lot about the kind of country we will become during his administration.
Obama has called Afghanistan a war of necessity and fed the notion that it is the “good war,” in contrast to the one in Iraq. But Afghanistan policy should not be a hostage to the president’s past rhetoric. On a matter of such critical importance, the White House needs to look anew at the situation and consider the likely consequences of this decision for national security and for America’s other needs.
The course of the war over the past eight years, along with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, should have led the White House to explore a broader range of options than the ones the president has before him. Neither sending more troops to expand our counterinsurgency nor reverting to a forward-based counterterrorism operation would enhance national security or be in the best interests of Afghanistan. The president should expand the policy review to include alternatives that would allow Washington to disengage militarily and pursue a regional diplomatic initiative to bring about a new power-sharing arrangement, along the lines spelled out by Robert Dreyfuss.
The US experience in Afghanistan makes it clear that this is not a war of necessity. We have learned–or should have learned–that we can keep Americans safe from terrorism even if remnants of the Al Qaeda leadership continue to enjoy relative safe haven in Pakistan or parts of Afghanistan. Indeed, the greater danger today comes from a small and dispersed terrorist network that has at most a tangential connection to the region. American safety therefore depends not on eliminating faraway Al Qaeda safe havens but on common-sense counterterrorism and homeland defense measures: extensive intelligence cooperation, expert police work, border control and the occasional surgical use of special forces to disrupt imminent attacks.
We should also have a better appreciation of Pakistan’s complicated political landscape and how the war in Afghanistan affects it. Clearly, some groups in the Pakistani intelligence service and military tolerate or even encourage the Taliban as a way to thwart US and Indian interests in Afghanistan. But we also know that a civilian Pakistani government and its military will curb the Taliban when they feel themselves threatened or decide it is in Pakistan’s best interest. We should understand that escalating the war only creates more divisions within Pakistan and strengthens the forces there that have supported the Taliban. Thus, the best safeguard for stability is to support the evolution of Pakistan’s democratic government, which for its own reasons rejects extremism.