Call for Afghanistan exit is premature

October 5th, 2009

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Originally published in Politico.

American support for U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan has hovered around the 50 percent mark for many years now. While most Americans consistently believe the war in Afghanistan is winnable, roughly an equal number feel we are not succeeding. In recent months, with U.S. casualties rising and the Taliban making territorial gains to retake control of Afghanistan, American confidence in the mission has dropped further still, and calls for withdrawal — mostly from the left — are increasing.

Eight years have passed since the U.S. and its allies struck against Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime that provided it sanctuary. Americans are struggling to reconcile the length and costs of the war with results on the ground and, more fundamentally, to understand how our continued involvement serves our national security.

Many have come to see our efforts in Afghanistan through the prism of the war in Iraq: as a lengthy conflict in which success has been hampered by an ill-defined strategy, poor planning, insufficient resources and an unreliable in-country government. But Afghanistan is not Iraq, and the siren call for a premature exit, while tempting in the near term, would be ephemeral and likely lead to a terrorist threat from Al Qaeda greater than that which existed before the Sept. 11 attacks.

We are fighting a terrorist enemy in Al Qaeda that must parasitically attach itself onto a “host” in order to survive and thrive. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan provided Al Qaeda such a safe haven from which to plot attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans on U.S. soil.

From its rugged border region refuge in Pakistan, Al Qaeda now seeks to topple the Afghan regime and restore Taliban rule. But its goal is notstatus quo antebellum. Al Qaeda seeks to go back to the future, to return to Afghanistan emboldened and, from there, continue its campaign of virulent extremism to overthrow the government in Islamabad. Al Qaeda has long sought to possess weapons of mass destruction, and Pakistan’s estimated arsenal of 80 to 100 nuclear warheads represents an apocalyptic prize of staggering geopolitical significance.

When President Barack Obama took office, he inherited a war effort in disarray. At a critical time in the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the Bush administration had diverted military and intelligence resources and personnel from the central front against terrorism to invade Iraq. The legacy effects of this ill-fated decision on our efforts to eradicate Al Qaeda and on our strained ground forces are still being felt, along with the pain and suffering of the thousands of Americans whose lives have been lost or shattered. It’s worth remembering that America’s troop presence in Iraq today is still more than double that in Afghanistan.

In March, Obama announced a dual-track strategy that understood the fundamental connection between our counterinsurgency fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and our counterterrorism campaign against Al Qaeda and that change was needed if we were to prevail against a resilient and resourceful enemy. The president moved quickly but deliberatively to formulate a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently acknowledged has been absent since the early 1980s.

The careful and sobering review produced a smarter, stronger, more accountable policy, one that reaffirmed the necessity of prosecuting Al Qaeda while accepting the need for benchmarks to measure achievement. The mission was clearly defined, U.S. military leadership in Afghanistan was changed, troop levels were bolstered and trainers were increased to accelerate the size, capability and self-sufficiency of the Afghan security forces.

Obama recognized that the road ahead would be long and difficult but promised a new policy that would evolve, if needed, to accomplish the overriding goal of protecting America. His intention to carefully consider, along with other options, Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for up to 40,000 additional troops keeps faith with this commitment.

Time is needed for the new strategy to succeed, and efforts to push for a premature withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan would only serve to short-circuit the sort of responsible, clear-eyed examination of options absent in the past.

The president is wise to speak directly to the American people about the difficult challenges ahead and the imperative we face to root out Al Qaeda and its enablers. He must continue to communicate the costs of both action and inaction in Afghanistan and remind those who would raise their fingers to the political wind that Al Qaeda’s will to strike America has not waned over the past eight years.