Crossroads: Can We Win in Afghanistan?

The death of Osama bin Laden will raise the inevitable question: What are we still doing in Afghanistan? The answer, of course, is that the mission in Afghanistan is about something bigger and more ambitious than eliminating Al Qaeda’s leaders-most of whom, in any event, are probably living in Pakistan, as bin Laden was when ...

BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images
BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images
BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

The death of Osama bin Laden will raise the inevitable question: What are we still doing in Afghanistan? The answer, of course, is that the mission in Afghanistan is about something bigger and more ambitious than eliminating Al Qaeda's leaders-most of whom, in any event, are probably living in Pakistan, as bin Laden was when the United States finally tracked him down. No, the mission in Afghanistan isn't about killing Al Qaeda members. It's about stabilizing the country so that it can never again serve as the hotbed of extremism that it was until 2001, with all of the attendant national security and human rights problems that resulted.

But that in turn raises other questions: Is it worth prolonging a war that has stretched on for nearly ten years for that broader goal? And perhaps the most difficult question of all: Even if that goal is worth fighting for, is it actually achievable? 

Over the past few years, a consensus has formed in Washington that the answer to that last question is a resounding no. For years, war in Afghanistan has been portrayed as a hopeless failure. The government in Kabul, we have been told, is corrupt and predatory. The Afghan army is a mess. Tribal loyalties trump national loyalties. The Taliban is gaining in strength.

The death of Osama bin Laden will raise the inevitable question: What are we still doing in Afghanistan? The answer, of course, is that the mission in Afghanistan is about something bigger and more ambitious than eliminating Al Qaeda’s leaders-most of whom, in any event, are probably living in Pakistan, as bin Laden was when the United States finally tracked him down. No, the mission in Afghanistan isn’t about killing Al Qaeda members. It’s about stabilizing the country so that it can never again serve as the hotbed of extremism that it was until 2001, with all of the attendant national security and human rights problems that resulted.

But that in turn raises other questions: Is it worth prolonging a war that has stretched on for nearly ten years for that broader goal? And perhaps the most difficult question of all: Even if that goal is worth fighting for, is it actually achievable? 

Over the past few years, a consensus has formed in Washington that the answer to that last question is a resounding no. For years, war in Afghanistan has been portrayed as a hopeless failure. The government in Kabul, we have been told, is corrupt and predatory. The Afghan army is a mess. Tribal loyalties trump national loyalties. The Taliban is gaining in strength.

All of this rendered a decision made by President Obama last autumn rather odd-at least on the surface. Obama had long promised that American troops would begin leaving Afghanistan in the summer of 2011. As Vice President Joe Biden had explained: "In July 2011, you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it." But then, over the course of a week in November, the White House announced a major reversal of course: A large-scale troop presence would remain in Afghanistan for an additional three years, until 2014.

To read the rest of this article, visit TNR.com, where this was originally published.

Peter Bergen, the editor of the AfPak Channel, is the Director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, a senior fellow at New York University’s Center on Law and Security, and the author of The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda. He is a national security analyst for CNN.

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