An expert's point of view on a current event.

Afghanistan Is Still Worth the Fight

There may not be a single or short explanation justifying a U.S. presence in Afghanistan. But that doesn't mean it's time to cut and run.


President Barack Obama has a heavy burden in the next few days. He must convince increasingly skeptical publics in the United States, Europe, Afghanistan, and the region of two things: that the United States and NATO have a compelling strategic interest in Afghan stability, and that they have the will and partners to succeed. This first of two articles addresses the first issue.

President Barack Obama has a heavy burden in the next few days. He must convince increasingly skeptical publics in the United States, Europe, Afghanistan, and the region of two things: that the United States and NATO have a compelling strategic interest in Afghan stability, and that they have the will and partners to succeed. This first of two articles addresses the first issue.

Is there something in Afghanistan worth fighting for? The short answer is yes. But the long answer is complicated. Unlike the clarity in the weeks following 9/11, there is no single reason, standing alone, that makes the case. It is rather a series of interrelated concerns that when considered as a whole make continued, robust engagement in Afghanistan the best of a series of bad options. To put it another way, as difficult as it will be to fulfill the promises we’ve made to the Afghans over the last eight years, the alternatives are far more dangerous, dispiriting, and unpredictable.

Al Qaeda

As with the initial casus belli in 2001, the argument begins with al Qaeda, or more accurately the network of militant jihadi groups anchored in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region for the last few decades. In the United States at least, all sides seem to agree that the threat posed by extremist Islamist terrorists remains, as Obama said in March at the end of the first 60-day regional strategy review, a "vital national security interest."

We continue to face a determined and resourceful enemy that sees this conflict in cosmic terms. Eight years after the September 11 attacks, top al Qaeda leaders have evaded capture and have managed to plan or at least inspire significant terrorist attacks and numerous other plots in major Western cities. Although the planning, funding, training, and recruiting for future attacks may not necessarily happen only in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, increased operating space for militants in that region will make it easier and more likely.

This base remains practically and psychologically important to al Qaeda. Al Qaeda was born in the Pashtun belt, and intermarriage and familiarity make this the "home field" — far more than Somalia or Yemen. The jihads that drove out the "infidel" British and Soviet empires were launched here, and success in driving out the Americans would immeasurably bolster the reputation and fortunes of the militants.

We need to see the context, as they do, in both local and global terms. At the local level, al Qaeda, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and other affiliated groups have very specific, concrete aims: to drive out the "occupiers" and overthrow the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, etc., replacing them with an Islamist caliphate. Such victories would yield territory and potentially other assets such as weapons and natural resources. On the global level, al Qaeda wants to be the standard-bearer for Islamic unity and triumph over Western hegemony. The re-Talibanization of Afghanistan would stand as a beacon for jihadist struggle against established powers from Egypt to Indonesia.

However, the U.S. president cannot, and should not, rely exclusively or even primarily on the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates to argue that the United States has a critical interest in Afghan stability. The events of September 11, 2001, may have provided, in October 2001, an all-engrossing rationale for the invasion of Afghanistan, but they do not hold that same power today. Not only have eight years passed without a major attack on U.S. soil, but the focus in Afghanistan quickly evolved into something far more complex than just hunting terrorist criminals.


In the last few years a new and perhaps even bigger problem has emerged for the United States and its allies: the stability of Pakistan. In a country of 170 million Muslims with as many as 100 nuclear weapons and semi-permanent conflict with its nuclear neighbor India, the prospect of collapse or militant takeover in Pakistan is a nightmare scenario of global dimensions.

In sheer human terms, the cost of conflict in Pakistan is immense. When the Pakistani military moved into the Swat Valley to fight militants challenging the writ of the central government, more than 2 million people were displaced. A wave of suicide bombings across the country in the last few months alone has killed hundreds and sparked fear into millions.

From a geopolitical perspective, Pakistani instability is an even greater threat. Indeed, some experts believe that the closest the world has come to nuclear exchange since the Cuban missile crisis was the 1999 military confrontation between India and Pakistan in Kargil. The threat of military confrontation between Pakistan and India rose dramatically again in the wake of the November 2008 assault on Mumbai directed from terrorist groups in Pakistan. Indian forbearance following the Mumbai attacks is unlikely to be repeated in the event of another large-scale attack or militant capture of nuclear assets. But even a targeted strike by Indian forces against a known terrorist training camp inside Pakistan would very likely ignite a wider war. As one Pakistani general expressed to me recently in Islamabad, "The escalation ladder is very steep, and no one controls it."

So what does this have to do with Afghanistan? Pakistan’s stability is directly affected by Afghanistan’s stability. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border (also known as the Durand Line) is 1,600 miles long. For long stretches, it cuts through territory in the Pashtun tribal belt where many of the local residents, and certainly the militants, don’t recognize the border at all. Until October 2001, al Qaeda and the Taliban were primarily in Afghanistan, until the U.S. invasion drove them across the border into Pakistan. The failure of Pakistan to deal with those groups then allowed them to metastasize, fomenting the creation of the Pakistani Taliban. If the United States were to leave or cede territory in Afghanistan, these groups would undoubtedly flow back across the border again, providing a sanctuary for Pakistan militants and al Qaeda, just as Pakistan has provided a sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda since 2001.

Concern about Pakistani stability does not require, as some have suggested, that we should do less in Afghanistan so that we can do more in Pakistan. The reality is that the United States has a much greater capacity to act in Afghanistan, including ground forces, intelligence assets, and a partnership with the Afghan government. We are far more constrained in Pakistan, and U.S. efforts there are viewed with much greater suspicion. Thus, one of the greatest impacts we can have on Pakistani stability is to enhance Afghan stability.

The Moral Argument

In the 1980s, the United States supported a war in Afghanistan not to help the Afghans, but to bleed the Soviet Union during its decade-long Afghan misadventure. After sending billions of dollars in arms to one of the poorest societies on Earth — and thereby helping to permanently upend its political, social, and economic balances — the United States left. Afghanistan’s rapid descent into state failure, civil war, and chaos in the early 1990s drew little interest, attention, or funding from the West.

Sitting in Afghanistan as a U.N. and NGO official for four years of the civil war from 1993 to 1996, I puzzled over why the United States didn’t care more about Afghanistan. One of the poorest countries in the world with more landmines, refugees, and child deaths under 5 than any other country, Afghans were desperate for help. Credited with helping to bring down the Soviet Union, they received none of the great peace dividend transforming Europe in those heady years. Yet they still liked America (grateful for U.S. help against the Soviets), welcomed aid workers, and lacked the reflexive anti-Semitic, anti-Israel ethic of the region. A little help could have gone a long way. But the diviners of the U.S. national interest saw nothing compelling. Rather than a failed policy toward Afghanistan, the United States simply had no policy at all. In our absence, more sinister forces filled the void.

In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan not to help the Afghans, but to destroy al Qaeda and dislodge the Taliban government giving it sanctuary. Had Bin Laden still been based in Sudan (as he was until 1996), the Taliban would likely still be in power in Kabul. Despite that narrow objective, our mission in Afghanistan soon became much broader. President George W. Bush promised a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan and the United States defined success as not only destroying al Qaeda, but creating a stable, reasonably democratic, and increasingly prosperous Afghanistan.

Even before the last 30 years of war, Afghanistan was among the poorest countries in the world. For the last eight years, at conference after conference, the United States and its international partners have been promising the Afghan people a better future. We have encouraged Afghan girls and women, bound to the home during the gender apartheid of the Taliban, to go to school, to work, and to run for political office. We have lamented abandoning the Afghans in 1990s, which came at enormous cost to both our nations. In 2009, the United States has a heavy moral obligation to the Afghan people.

America in the World

The final argument that compels continued U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is perhaps the most difficult for Obama to make: failure in Afghanistan will have broad and unpredictable implications for the U.S. role in the world.

The United States and NATO would suffer a credibility crisis if the Taliban and al Qaeda can claim a full military victory in Afghanistan. On the heels of the disastrous U.S. experience in Iraq, the United States risks appearing feckless, unable to accomplish its highest priority national security objectives and perhaps unable to even define them. Where will its allies be willing to follow the United States next? If NATO is similarly unable to sustain commitment to its first-ever declaration of collective action in defense of a member, how will it respond to other challenges in the future?

This is not a question of "saving face"– the lifespan of al Qaeda and Talibanism will be determined by the perceptions of the region’s populations about the strength and righteousness of the militants. In 2001, the Taliban were not just weakened, but discredited. In 2009, will the Taliban be seen as Afghanistan’s (and Pakistan’s) future?

This malaise is likely to hit the United States at home, as well. Americans will grow increasingly skeptical of their ability to act effectively in the world, to deliver aid, to keep a difficult peace. Whatever happens in Afghanistan, U.S. engagement in the unstable corners of our world will remain an essential element of our security and prosperity in the next century. In that context, Afghanistan, beset by extremism, conflict, and poverty remains not only important in its own right, but a critical exemplar of the challenges we must meet in the decades to come.

Part II

A continued U.S. investment in Afghanistan will require a commitment of wills, and of partners.

The second phase of the challenge President Obama will face in the coming days is appealing to those skeptical publics mentioned earlier — the United States, Europe, and Afghanistan — and assuring them that the United States and NATO can succeed. The second part of this article addresses this issue.

Can we stabilize Afghanistan? From today’s vantage point, this question must give even the most bullish advocates of engagement pause. Even if there is a convincing case for the United States to remain in Afghanistan (see Part 1), it is somewhat more difficult to be confident that success is attainable.

Negative Trends

The current crisis of confidence over Afghanistan has a strong basis in fact. Even as the international and Afghan military forces and international aid budgets have increased dramatically over the last few years, the situation has markedly deteriorated. In 2002, there were 69 hostile coalition deaths in Afghanistan, compared with 485 in 2009 thus far (with 77 in August alone). Afghan civilian deaths at the hands of the insurgency (as well as the coalition) appear to have doubled each year in that period as well. Suicide bombings and attacks from improvised explosive devices have skyrocketed since 2002, as has the production of opium, from 3,400 metric tons in 2002 to 7,700 in 2008. In 2009, Transparency International rated Afghanistan the second-most corrupt country in the world.

This is all against a backdrop of significant, if belated, investment. The Congressional Research Service estimates that U.S. costs of the engagement in Afghanistan have been $227 billion, including nearly $16 billion in foreign aid and diplomatic operations, with an additional $73 billion estimated for fiscal year 2010. U.S. spending on the creation of a new Afghan National Army and Police — a centerpiece of the U.S. strategy from the start — was $191 million in 2002. The 2010 request is $7.5 billion.

On balance, things should have gone far, far better. The United States and a 40-country alliance have been in Afghanistan for eight years, which is long for an active military campaign (longer than U.S. involvement in World Wars I and II combined), but not so long for a reconstruction and stabilization mission. Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Cyprus have had U.S. or international forces for decades, and Bosnia, Kosovo, and other post-Cold War peacekeeping operations still far out-extend Afghanistan. What is most problematic in Afghanistan is that things are moving in the wrong direction: It went from a short war to a stabilization and reconstruction mission, and now back to a war. Put another way, the problem is not that we are still in Afghanistan after eight years; the problem is that we are losing.

U.S. President Barack Obama faces enormous hurdles in turning the situation around. After eight years, even a well-designed and fully resourced strategy is not guaranteed to succeed. Illicit power structures, including warlords, narcomafias, and other criminal networks have become entrenched and intertwined with corrupt government officials. Political patronage, at the heart of the recent election fraud, is more powerful than those forces promoting reform. And the international community’s record of delivering effective assistance programs does not always inspire confidence. A fraction of each dollar allocated actually makes it to the end user, and sometimes even then fails to have the desired impact. Positions funded to train Afghan police go unfilled, and some civilians sent to mentor senior Afghans are far less qualified than those they are sent to assist.

In practice, creating a viable, legitimate government out of the ashes of decades of conflict is a low-probability undertaking, even in the best of circumstances. Everything can, and will, go wrong. Internationals will do too much, crowding out indigenous initiative, or too little, leaving the green shoots of renewal to whither. International troops will be seen as aggressive occupiers, or as ineffectual and value-neutral, failing to contain spoilers. A strong domestic leader will rile factional, ethnic, or sectarian divisions, and a weak one will fail to unify in divisive times. A failure to deal with past abuses by powerful actors will undermine the possibility for reconciliation, or digging up the past will prevent the possibility for a stable political settlement. Indeed, every one of these charges has been made in Afghanistan in the last eight years.

This crisis of confidence has caused some to ask whether the United States should abandon the stabilization effort and instead focus more narrowly on destroying al Qaeda cells, mostly located in Pakistan. It is a deceptively attractive proposition: Do less and spend less to accomplish more. However, I think this perspective grossly underestimates the true threats to the United States posed by instability in the region and grossly overestimates the ease of implementing an effective counterterrorism strategy in the absence of a strong ground presence and reliable partners.

Our Partners

The unstable leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the tensions between the two countries over Pakistani sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban (and, to a lesser extent, Afghan sanctuary for Pakistani Baluch separatists), provides fundamental cause for concern.

Overall, the Afghan government has not fulfilled its promise. No government that is unable to provide security to its population, and which is seen as corrupt and unjust, will be legitimate in the population’s eyes. This illegitimacy has driven Afghans away from the government and emboldened the insurgency. Subversion of the 2009 electoral process by President Hamid Karzai’s supporters for personal gain came dangerously close to derailing the already-precarious political equilibrium in Kabul. As a result, Karzai’s damaged legitimacy with the Afghan people and the international community imperils the central concept of the international engagement in Afghanistan: to build a competent, capable, and accountable Afghan partner, and then leave. Or as the current counterinsurgency mantra puts it: clear, hold, build, and transfer.

Across the border, Pakistan remains both help and hindrance. Most of the NATO supply chain for Afghanistan runs through Pakistan, and the civilian government in Islamabad has contributed to a significant improvement in relations between the two countries. At the same time, the Afghan Taliban still enjoy unmolested sanctuary in Pakistan, and senior U.S. officials, including the secretary of state, have even questioned Pakistan’s commitment to fighting al Qaeda. It appears that Pakistan’s security establishment, which is still fundamentally directed toward India, continues to support militancy and an insurance policy in Afghanistan.

The Good News?

Even in this discouraging climate, today’s problems are relative. When I first moved to Afghanistan in 1993, the country was in chaos, divided into warring fiefdoms. The situation was so bad that the Taliban, with their harsh rule and obscure ideology, were a welcome change. Through four years on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, I witnessed the impact of war, warlordism, Talibanism, and abandonment by the West on Afghanistan and its neighbors. Afghanistan, its fabric of governance and society rent by war, became a breeding ground of Islamist extremism and global jihadists.

But I also came to know another Afghanistan, replete with moderate, hard-working men and women who want nothing more than a modicum of stability. Afghanistan is not some ungovernable, tribal society doomed to permanent conflict. Even during the war, thousands of community leaders worked to resolve conflicts and improve living standards for their people. After 2001, many Afghan leaders were intent on returning their country to the community of nations and creating a better future. Indeed, by some measures — growth of per capita income, access to basic health care and education, expansion of telecommunications — there have been significant achievements over the last eight years.

Many of these accomplishments were achieved through work with and through the Karzai government. When we have the right partners — competent ministers, governors, generals, and police chiefs — we have seen dramatic gains. The international community and Afghans don’t need a perfect government; they just need the balance to tilt heavily in favor of positive actors. At the same time, much can be done at the local level to improve governance and development. Indeed, the most successful programs in Afghanistan since 2001, such as the National Solidarity and National Health Programs, rely heavily on local decision-making and participation.

It is also heartening that the vast majority of Afghans continue to abhor the Taliban and support the presence of international forces. Some 69 percent of Afghans rate the efforts of the NATO/International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces from fair to excellent, while 82 percent prefer the Afghan government, with only 4 percent support for the Taliban. There was a broad popular insurgency against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan because Afghans did not want what the Soviets had to offer. The growing disaffection with the current Afghan government and ISAF is because Afghans did want what they had to offer, but they failed to deliver.

A concerted effort to deliver security, good governance, the rule of law, and some basic economic opportunity could largely turn the tide. The focus of U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan should not be exclusively, or even primarily, military. Instead, the real key to success in Afghanistan will be to reinvigorate critical efforts to promote Afghan leadership and capacity at all levels of society while combating the culture of impunity that is undermining the entire effort.

The Will to Carry on?

Afghan stability will not be accomplished through a strategy whose principle objective is to exit. The way out of Afghanistan is to tamp down some of the key drivers of conflict while building a sustainable Afghan institutional basis for long-term stability. The United States and its allies also need to create an enabling environment in the region — all the neighboring countries and regional powers need to feel invested in Afghan stability.

This will ultimately require a sense of long-term U.S. commitment to the region, shared by all actors. Such an approach does not mean an open-ended military combat commitment, but it does mean civilian aid, training and equipping of local security forces, and political engagement for some time. It also means a strong bipartisan effort to elevate and reinforce the U.S. commitment.

In the end, do Americans have the stomach for another few years of hard slogging at several hundred lives and $80 billion per year? For the first seven years of the Afghan war, the U.S. public was broadly supportive. The recent decline in support is not because Americans are suddenly opposed to having U.S. forces in the region. It is because they believe the United States is losing in Afghanistan and may not be capable of turning the situation around.

Obama must now be prepared to convince us otherwise. He must tell us why Afghanistan matters and how the United States and its partners can succeed there. Then he must prove it.

J Alexander Thier, the founder of Triple Helix, was the executive director of the Overseas Development Institute in London and was USAID’s chief of policy, planning, and learning from 2013 to 2015. He is writing in a personal capacity. Twitter: @Thieristan

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