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The Conservative Curmudgeon
October 15, 2009

Nation-Building in Afghanistan: A War of Necessity or Choice?
by Allan C. Brownfeld

ALEXANDRIA, VA — President Barack Obama has described the war in Afghanistan as a “war of necessity” rather than “a war of choice.” This may have been true of our initial effort, but the conflict, as it has evolved, may now be something else. As we consider whether to send additional troops, it is appropriate that we have a serious discussion of exactly what our purpose is in Afghanistan.

 Our original mission was to destroy those who had attacked us on September 11, 200l, and deny them a future base of operations.

Slowly, as we achieved the removal of Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and the Taliban from power, our mission grew. We decided to “nation build,” to try to create a new and stable democracy. We also sought to get Afghan farmers to grow pomegranates instead of opium poppies. To date, we have not resolved the choice of crops; opium, the basic ingredient of heroin, is far more profitable than pomegranates.

More Americans have been killed in the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan than were killed on September 11. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported to Congress in September that General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces, told him that “quite honestly, he found conditions on the ground tougher than he thought.” If we do not send more troops, McChrystal says, we risk “an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

The war already is nearly 50 percent longer than the combined U.S. involvements in two world wars. NATO assistance is reluctant and is being slowly withdrawn. Military historian Max Hastings says that Kabul controls only about one-third of the country. The Economist describes President Hamid Karzai's government as so “inept, corrupt, and predatory” that people sometimes yearn for “restoration of the warlords, who were less venal and less brutal than Mr. Karzai’s lot. His vice president is a drug trafficker.”

On August 29, The New York Times carried a front-page headline: “Karzai Uses Rift with U.S. To Gain Favor.” The article said that U.S. officials were growing disenchanted with the Afghan president; his supporters allegedly stuffed ballot boxes in the recent elections, while Karzai struck deals with accused drug dealers and warlords, one of whom is his brother, for political gain. The article notes that Karzai “has surprised some in the Obama administration,” by turning their anger with him “to an advantage, portraying himself at home as the only political candidate willing to stand up to the dictates of the United States.”

Thus, after eight years, we still do not have a reliable Afghan partner. The strategy that Gen. McChrystal is pursuing calls for additional troops to create something that does not now exist in Afghanistan — and has never existed — a reasonably uncorrupt state that will keep Afghanistan free of drug lords, warlords, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda.

We are not just talking about adding more troops to Afghanistan; we are transforming our mission. We are going from a limited mission to prevent the return of Al Qaeda to a state-building enterprise. In the meantime, Al Qaeda has regrouped along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as in other locations, such as Somalia and Yemen.

The Obama administration recently called on Bruce Riedel, a retired CIA officer, to lead a two-month strategic review of the war. President Obama went to the Pentagon for a briefing by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead of delineating a clear goal in Afghanistan, the briefing listed more than a dozen goals.

 Mr. Riedel’s review looked at an array of options, including an abandonment of counter-insurgency and a very narrow focus on Al Qaeda. This “minimalist” view has been embraced by a diverse group of thinkers, including Rory Stewart, the British diplomat and writer who runs a foundation in Kabul; conservative columnist George Will; and Lester Gelb, whose recent book, Power Rules, argues for a reduced American commitment in Afghanistan and recommends threatening air strikes to deter the Taliban from allowing Al Qaeda back into the country.

In a much-discussed column, George Will wrote: “...the Obama administration should ask itself: If U.S. forces are there to prevent re-establishment of al Qaeda bases — evidently there are none now — must there be nation-building invasions of Somalia, Yemen, and other sovereignty vacuums?... Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes, and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous l,500-mile border with Pakistan....”

President Obama’s target in pursuing the Afghan war was, or at least used to be, Al Qaeda. But Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group left Afghanistan after the battle of Tora Bora in December 200l.

As skepticism grows about our role in Afghanistan on the part of some Democrats,  Republicans seem to be lining up in support of additional troops. Gene Healy, vice president of the Cato Institute, notes that, “You'd certainly expect conservatives to be the leading skeptics of government’s attempts at massive transformation.”

Liberals may have a temperamental affinity for nation-building, together with their neo-conservative allies. Historian and Vietnam veteran Walter McDougall, in retrospect, calls Vietnam “the Great Society War,” and believes that President Obama would do well to learn from the errors of that period, particularly the failed “pacification” program and the effort to “model” South Vietnamese society via the computer.

The original war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was indeed “a war of necessity.” What we can call our current effort, and the one projected for the future, is something far different.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2009 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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© 2009 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation