Thinking about Afghanistan
By Steve Coll I have a new post up on Think Tank on President Obama’s Afghan dilemma. At the risk of trying the patience of those who seek from Afghan wonks a short yes-or-no opinion about General McChrystal’s assessment of the war and his argument for more U.S. troops pronto, I thought I would try ...
By Steve Coll
By Steve Coll
I have a new post up on Think Tank on President Obama’s Afghan dilemma.
At the risk of trying the patience of those who seek from Afghan wonks a short yes-or-no opinion about General McChrystal’s assessment of the war and his argument for more U.S. troops pronto, I thought I would try a series of posts this week that seek some distance from the political heat surrounding President Obama’s first (but presumably not his only) excruciating decision as commander-in-chief. I’ll circle around to the yes-or-no, but gradually.
I have been scratching my head about the President’s Afghan dilemma since mid-summer. My progress with this puzzle has been limited. The decisions he now faces are so complex that the first difficulty is to define the problem correctly. The President made clear during his weekend TV blitz that he understands this. One place to start is with a basic question: What vital U.S. national security interests are at issue in the Afghan war?
I choose “at issue” deliberately. The United States has interests in this war that are not located exclusively in the geography of Afghanistan. That explains in part why the choices facing the president are so complicated. Also, just to be clear, identifying vital interests is a distinct matter from determining the means to pursue them; troop deployments are subordinate to strategy, as the President said repeatedly in his weekend interviews.
In this war, we have two important interests, IMHO. (“Vital” is national security jargon sometimes used in to legal standards that govern the use of Presidential power; let’s set that word aside.)
One is largely uncontroversial: The reduction of Al Qaeda to a nuisance or less. Here the president has been clear and consistent since the campaign. A.Q. remains headquartered along the Afghan-Pakistan border. It has recently mounted violent attacks in Pakistan, India, and Indonesia, among other places. It has attempted ambitious attacks in Europe. There is virtually no evidence that it has current or prospective traction in the United States, but its leaders clearly have residual intent to whack us if they can figure out how. In a global strategic sense, they are already close to being reduced to a nuisance. Yet Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawihiri remain at large and have made clear they retain the desire to carry out mass casualty attacks. Also, A.Q. has fused to some extent with the Taliban and has posed a significant threat to the stability of the Pakistan government, murdering Benazir Bhutto and almost marching on Islamabad last spring. It is important to deprive them of their ambition, as Obama seems determined to do.
The second American interest in the war, however, is by some margin the more important and enduring one. Yet it is also a more complex subject and so it is more difficult to articulate in political English as a distilled objective.
Read the rest over at Think Tank.
Steve Coll is the president of the New America Foundation and a staff writer at the New Yorker.
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