Afghanistan is just not that important…

Like many people in the foreign policy community, I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time grappling with the issues associated with Afghanistan. I have been reading newspaper reports, listening to interviews and testimony, weighing the assessments of experts. It is a tiny microcosm of the process that is taking place within the highest levels ...

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579063_091016_rothkopf2.jpg

Like many people in the foreign policy community, I've been spending an inordinate amount of time grappling with the issues associated with Afghanistan. I have been reading newspaper reports, listening to interviews and testimony, weighing the assessments of experts. It is a tiny microcosm of the process that is taking place within the highest levels of the U.S. government right now with a couple differences. First, I don't have access to classified reports (although for the most part my experience has taught me to approach these with great caution.) Second, I don't have to worry about the politics of the decision I reach -- internal or external. And third, and most importantly, my opinion really doesn't matter. I'm up here in the cheap seats -- the blogosphere being the "noisebleed section" of the political arena -- and we all know that a stadium full of people shouting their opinions just sounds like cheering or booing and isn't much more nuanced than that.

Still, as with any discussions concerning whether or not and how to conduct a war, this is a debate that has a strong sense of urgency about it. It also involves a host of really interesting questions about what our real objectives are, about whether this is a counter-insurgency or a counter-terrorism operation, about how victory can be measured, about who our real allies and enemies are, about how much cost we are willing to bear, about what the role for NATO should be, about how to deal with a corrupt, dysfunctional partner in Kabul, even about more fundamental issues such as how do we ultimately keep ourselves safe from terror, whether we can ever be successful at nation-building, and whether there is even truly a nation to build in a country like Afghanistan that is really (much as Iraq is) a confection of the minds of British imperialists that overlooks ancient tribal realities.

Like many people in the foreign policy community, I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time grappling with the issues associated with Afghanistan. I have been reading newspaper reports, listening to interviews and testimony, weighing the assessments of experts. It is a tiny microcosm of the process that is taking place within the highest levels of the U.S. government right now with a couple differences. First, I don’t have access to classified reports (although for the most part my experience has taught me to approach these with great caution.) Second, I don’t have to worry about the politics of the decision I reach — internal or external. And third, and most importantly, my opinion really doesn’t matter. I’m up here in the cheap seats — the blogosphere being the “noisebleed section” of the political arena — and we all know that a stadium full of people shouting their opinions just sounds like cheering or booing and isn’t much more nuanced than that.

Still, as with any discussions concerning whether or not and how to conduct a war, this is a debate that has a strong sense of urgency about it. It also involves a host of really interesting questions about what our real objectives are, about whether this is a counter-insurgency or a counter-terrorism operation, about how victory can be measured, about who our real allies and enemies are, about how much cost we are willing to bear, about what the role for NATO should be, about how to deal with a corrupt, dysfunctional partner in Kabul, even about more fundamental issues such as how do we ultimately keep ourselves safe from terror, whether we can ever be successful at nation-building, and whether there is even truly a nation to build in a country like Afghanistan that is really (much as Iraq is) a confection of the minds of British imperialists that overlooks ancient tribal realities.

To those who say that the Obama administration should not be reconsidering a strategy it announced only last spring, my reaction is that’s nonsense. We should constantly be reviewing our strategy based on the changing situation on the ground and the ebb and flow of other external priorities and factors. To those who say that the process has gone on too long, I also say, that’s ridiculous given the human stakes involved.

But I am among the group concerned that the final decision may be tainted by factors that should not come into play when forging a strategy. One factor is campaign rhetoric: The president should not be locked into a course of action because of what he said as a candidate. Another factor is momentum: It is hard to reverse any enterprise as massive as this operation in Afghanistan. Another factor is fear of perceptions of an internal rift: I am on the record as feeling that General McChrystal went too far in publicly arguing his case and I feel the President should not be cowed into nudging the needle one jot in the direction of escalation of our involvement because he is unsettled by the political consequences of subordinates who didn’t get their way. I also fear the impulse some have to seek an answer that will make everyone happy. In this case, it’s just not there.

But the more I grapple with this problem in my own head, the more I feel like we are collectively falling victim to a fatal heuristic trap. After 9/11 nothing was more important that getting the terrorists that committed the act or making America safe from future attacks. This turned Bush as it would have turned any president toward Afghanistan. When he made his weird wrong turn toward Iraq, it led some among his opponents to argue even more vigorously that Afghanistan should have remained our top priority. This had two advantages: It immunized them from critiques they were “soft on terror” or “weak” and it was supported by a certain logic. Barack Obama and most Democrats were among this group.

When Obama came into office therefore, his mandate was to switch from Iraq to Afghanistan and we began to ramp up our involvement there. It became “his” war. It was the “war of necessity.” The more involved we got there, the more “important” the debate about our strategy there became. The issue grew to the point that it is common to see reference to Obama’s decision on whether or not to increase our troop presence there as the most important foreign policy decision he will make this year.

It might be. But that is different from saying that Afghanistan is actually important itself and different from saying it is really important to the interests of the United States. In fact, the reality is that there are few measures indeed by which it can be honestly argued that Afghanistan warrants the attention it is getting or the resources we are devoting to it.

National Security Advisor Jim Jones was quoted as saying there may be only 100 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The terror threat has moved elsewhere. Almost every country in Afghanistan’s immediate neighborhood can be argued to pose a bigger terrorist threat. It can be argued that we don’t want the Taliban to come back into power in Afghanistan. First, of all, that our departure would produce their return is by no means a certainty and it is a view shared by many in Afghanistan. Next, again, they are actively sponsored by elements in Pakistan and their fate is really driven from there.

For sure the biggest security threat in the region is not Afghanistan but Pakistan, a country careening toward the possibility of being divided by civil conflict. The core of the threat is Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals and anyone tells you the U.S. knows where the weapons are and is confident in their security is just outright lying to you. Pakistan is the home to terror. Pakistan is the 170 million person nation on the verge of chaos. Pakistan is the nuclear threat. Afghanistan is only relevant relative to Pakistan.

Does that make Afghanistan important? Only if we can use it as a base from which we can contain the threats posed from within Pakistan. But the reality is given the terrain in the mountains on the border, we have spent eight years proving that we can’t really do that. And our friends in Kabul are running such a bogus government that it is unlikely they will prove to be a useful aid in such matters anytime in the foreseeable future. Thus, if Afghanistan is only relevant as far as it can help deal with threats in Pakistan and it can’t really help very much with those, it is actually not that important.

What’s the conclusion? View all our actions in Afghanistan relative to our real interests in the region, which are for the most part in Pakistan. To the extent we can position ourselves in Afghanistan in ways supporting cross-border activities into Pakistan and that gives a rapid deployment capability should the worst happen there, fine. Give them aid. Encourage them to stabilize. But recognize that we shouldn’t have an extended military presence in a place that is not actually that important to us — especially if most experts think our likelihood of success with regard to military objectives in the country is in the slim to none range.

As periodically happens in American life, we are engaged in a furious debate about the wrong issue … and our failure to recognize this is certain to have negative implications for our ability to deal with what should be our real priorities.

MICHAEL KAPPELER/AFP

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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