Doubting Afghanistan

A compelling case for continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan can be made, but only by answering these 10 questions.


I have become a skeptic of the continued American involvement in Afghanistan. Like many skeptics of the policy, I am willing to be convinced to change my views. But unfortunately, most of the arguments in favor of an escalation of the conflict provide unconvincing strategic rationales. I believe that a compelling case for increasing our commitment must be able to provide convincing answers to these 10 questions.

(1) Why does the possibility that al Qaeda might establish a sanctuary in Afghanistan justify a multi-year commitment of American forces, while the reality of an al Qaeda sanctuary in Pakistan justifies nothing more than financial support to the Pakistani government and occasional Predator strikes?

(2) Is a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan inevitable without a significant American presence on the ground?  Or might some other form of aid to the Karzai regime be sufficient to stave off that eventuality?

(3) What precisely is the nature of the risk a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would pose to the stability of Pakistan? From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, and yet by most indications, Pakistan was under less threat from Islamist radicals then than now. What has changed to make Afghanistan now the lynchpin on which the stability of Pakistan rests?

(4) The escalation of our commitment to Afghanistan is intimately connected to the acceptance of population-centric counter-insurgency theory popularized by General Petraeus in Iraq.  How does this sort of campaign actually contribute to the long-term stabilization of Afghanistan? And if the goal is simply to dampen the insurgency to create space for a political process to occur, why is there any reason to assume that the Afghan government would be able to utilize this space more effectively than from early 2002 to early 2005 when there was only limited Taliban activity in the country?

(5) Is it possible to conceive a political process in Afghanistan that will provide lasting stability that does not require some negotiations with the Taliban? And if not, what sorts of concessions might be acceptable given the stated American interests in the country?

(6) Many proponents of escalation in Afghanistan highlight the American moral obligation to the Afghan people, in particular to Afghan women certain to be oppressed by a Taliban resurgence and the large number of men and women who have worked with American forces who would likely be targeted for retribution. What is the nature of this moral obligation? It is absolute? Are there steps we could take to mitigate the consequences short of providing a permanent guarantee of human rights in the country?

(7) Many of the steps we are encouraging the Afghans to undertake imply tremendous long-term costs. Increasing the size and capabilities of the Afghan army, institutionalize government control and services over the whole of the country, rooting out corruption and drug trafficking are all costly measures. How will the Afghan government pay for all these commitments in the future? Will the United States be required to continue to fund Afghan government operations to the tune of several billion dollars annually indefinitely? Are we, in short, encouraging a gap between increased Afghan government obligations and likely Afghan government revenues?

(8) What is the difference between the likely future risk posed by Afghanistan versus that posed by Somalia or other states with active violent Islamist movements?

(9) How significant is the assumption that regardless of the strategic logic for American involvement, we will likely remain because an attack on the United States emanating from Afghanistan would be a disaster for any incumbent president’s political standing? In other words, must we plan to remain in Afghanistan because of strategic risks or understandable domestic political risks?

(10) How significant is the fact that the "big three" — Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mullah Omar — remain at large and that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan might allow them to return? If all three were to die, would that change the calculus about American interests in Afghanistan? 

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