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Is the War in Afghanistan Worth Fighting?

Monday, August 31, 2009 6:52 PM

On Monday the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan called for a new strategy to fight the Taliban. The Post asked experts whether the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting. Below are contributions from John Nagl, Andrew J. Bacevich, Erin M. Simpson, Clint Douglas, Thomas H. Johnson and Danielle Pletka.

JOHN NAGL

President of the Center for a New American Security

America has vital national security interests in Afghanistan that make fighting there necessary. The key objectives of the campaign are preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a sanctuary for terrorists with global reach and ensuring that it does not become the catalyst for a broader regional security meltdown. Afghanistan also serves as a base from which the United States attacks al-Qaeda forces inside Pakistan and thus assists in the broader campaign against that terrorist organization -- one that we clearly must win.

U.S. policymakers must, of course, weigh all actions against America's global interests and the possible opportunity costs. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, low-cost strategies do not have an encouraging record of success. U.S. efforts to secure Afghanistan on the cheap after 2001 led it to support local strongmen whose actions alienated the population and thereby enabled the Taliban to reestablish itself as an insurgent force. Drone attacks, although efficient eliminators of Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, have not prevented extremist forces from spreading and threatening to undermine both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The so-called "light footprint" option has failed to secure U.S. objectives; as the Obama administration and the U.S. military leadership have recognized, it is well past time for a more comprehensive approach.

ANDREW J. BACEVICH

Professor of history and international relations at Boston University

Almost eight years into the Afghanistan war, the golfer in the Oval Office is essentially taking a mulligan: He's insisting that we allow him a do-over, starting the war all over again. Yet granting President Obama's request makes sense only if he can first make the following case:

Thus far, the president has not been able make that case persuasively. This is hardly surprising, because it is impossible to do so.

ERIN M. SIMPSON

Former professor at the Marine Command and Staff College; contributor to the blog Abu Muqawama

The war is worth fighting, and it's worth fighting well. Years of strategic neglect and severely limited resources have seriously undermined U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan. In the last year we finally acknowledged that Pakistan is critical to the success of our efforts in Afghanistan. In the next year we must recognize the degree to which Afghanistan is key to Pakistan's future stability. A fragmented, war-torn, or Taliban-ruled Afghanistan would offer both al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban a plush sanctuary with greater freedom of movement than is currently enjoyed in Pakistan. It is the future stability of this nuclear-armed neighbor that demands our presence and our perseverance in Afghanistan.

Some might argue for a quarantine strategy for Afghanistan, akin to previous counterterrorism missions. But this is not a war that can be meaningfully fought from stand-off range. The intelligence demands are daunting and cannot be met from either the Indian Ocean or satellites in orbit. And even if they could, given the distances involved, such information is perishable. Only people on the ground -- civilians and soldiers, Americans and Afghans -- can secure the population and deny our adversaries the sanctuaries they crave.

Is the War in Afghanistan worth fighting? Yes, but we've really only just begun.

CLINT DOUGLAS

Freelance writer and Afghanistan war veteran; will redeploy to Afghanistan soon

It has become painfully difficult to continue to argue for a continued American occupation of Afghanistan. However, I can see no other realistic options. The war, odious and vicious as it is, must continue. The difficulty lies not with all of the tragically squandered blood and treasure, nor with the tenacity of the Taliban, but with the venality of the Karzai regime. The thuggish kleptocracy that passes for a government in Afghanistan does more to further the spread of the insurgency than any misguided air strike. If the Afghan government, which is propped up by both American guns and money, cannot provide some facsimile of a reasonably efficient rule, then the brutal but otherwise predictable alternative offered by the Taliban will prevail. There is no reason to believe that the government will improve any time soon, if the shenanigans surrounding these latest elections are any indication. And we have much less influence in domestic Afghan politics than we'd like to admit.

However, we are far from powerless. We can continue to fund the expansion of the Afghan security forces, and we can enforce zones of relative stability that could facilitate the organic emergence of an Afghan leadership that can project both strength and integrity. All of which is a long shot, but a return to the status quo antebellum is impossible given the ever closer ties between the Taliban and the jihadist movement. An American withdrawal from Afghanistan now is not a move towards peace, but one that all but guarantees much greater instability and bloodshed in central and south Asia, which, let's face it, will inevitably draw us back into the region and on even less hospitable terms.

The opinions expressed above are the author's alone and do not represent those of the U.S. government.

THOMAS H. JOHNSON

Research professor and director of the Program of Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School

The war in Afghanistan is worth fighting only if we have well-defined goals and a realistic political and military strategy to achieve our objectives. Right now, we have neither. If the goal is to build a stable, "democratic" regime in Kabul, we will almost certainly fail. Afghans will never see such a government in Kabul as legitimate because democracy is not and has never been a source of legitimacy for governance in Afghanistan. Legitimacy in Afghanistan for thousands of years has stemmed exclusively from dynastic and religious sources.

Just as we misunderstand the basis for regime legitimacy in Afghanistan, we also profoundly misunderstand the nature of the enemy. In Afghanistan, we insist on fighting a counterinsurgency strategy based on secularly defined objectives, while the enemy is fighting a religiously inspired jihad. It's hard to defeat an enemy if you don't understand him. Most insurgencies end through some combination of negotiation and reconciliation, but the jihadists will never sincerely negotiate with us. Our "clear, hold, and build" approach is failing in Afghanistan for the same reasons it failed in Vietnam -- because we insist on prosecuting the approach sequentially -- not simultaneously. We can succeed in Afghanistan, but we need a strategy that is village-based and represents decentralized, bottom-up nation building based on traditional Afghan tribal leadership and legitimacy.

DANIELLE PLETKA

Vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute

Poor Afghanistan, so lacking in succor for the self-righteous. No Jews oppressing Muslims, no apartheid, no Islamists starving Africans. Angelina Jolie doesn't seem to care. It isn't even Iraq. It's no longer the good war, the one worth winning, as it was during the elections. And when Cindy Sheehan and George Will agree it's time to get out, can a hasty retreat be far behind?

Worse still, for those who believe victory is worth achieving in Afghanistan, it's not easy to pinpoint what victory looks like. It never has been. Nonetheless, Afghanistan has both strategic and moral value to the United States. And it is wise to remember that the price of failure is horribly high. We have failed before in Afghanistan and betrayed the trust of Afghans who believed America cared about them. After two decades and the rise of an al Qaeda homeland, we paid the price.

Now we have a chance to cement a better system into place in Afghanistan. It won't be easy, and the price will continue to escalate. But it is a lie to suggest it will be possible through remote counterterrorism operations; as in Iraq, security on the ground and faith in the future are the best antidotes to insurgents. Real victory is attainable; a real Afghan national army is being slowly empowered; and though the elections were a disappointment to many, they remain a model of suffrage compared to the past. We are progressing slowly, but we are progressing. And capitulating to the Taliban is unthinkable.

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