DEBATE PREP: Is this the only path to victory in Afghanistan?
November 7th, 2011
06:05 AM ET

DEBATE PREP: Is this the only path to victory in Afghanistan?

Editor’s note: This analysis is part of Security Clearance blog’s “Debate Preps” series. On November 22, CNN, along with AEI and The Heritage Foundation, will host a Republican candidate debate focused on national security topics. In the run-up to the debate, Security Clearance asked both the sponsoring conservative think tanks to look at the key foreign policy issues and tell us what they want to hear candidates address.

By AEI's Frederick Kagan, Special to CNN

What do we need to achieve in Afghanistan in order to protect the security of the United States and its allies?

That core question should shape any discussion of our strategy in Afghanistan or the resources we devote to executing it.  But that question is too often obscured.

Many say that pursuing any kind of “success” in Afghanistan, the supposed “graveyard of empires,” is sheer folly.  Others say that is has become irrelevant, and that the death of Osama bin Laden has deprived the war in Afghanistan of continued meaning.

These facile assertions produce more palatable answers, but do not answer the core question.  Presidents and candidates for president owe
Americans a clear and cogent answer, at least, as well as an explanation for how their proposed strategy that they lay out will accomplish the requirements for American security.

President Obama identified a number of reasons for the American presence in Afghanistan in his December 2009 speech announcing both
the surge of forces there and the strategy that those forces would pursue—the strategy that continues in effect to this day.  The clearest articulation of American interest in Afghanistan he offered was this one:

“This is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda. It is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak. This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat.  In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.”

He added later in that speech:  “We're in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country.”

President Obama dismissed the notion that Afghanistan is simply another Vietnam.

“And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border,” he said in that 2009 speech.

He rejected the notion that targeted strikes alone could defeat al Qaeda:  “To abandon this area now - and to rely only on efforts against al Qaeda from a distance - would significantly hamper our ability to keep the pressure on al Qaeda, and create an unacceptable risk of additional attacks on our homeland and our allies.”

He thus articulated a series of objectives achievement of which, he argued, was vital to America’s national security:

“Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.  To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan.  We must deny al
Qaeda a safe haven.  We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.  And we must strengthen the
capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.”

He did announce an 18-month timeline for the start of the withdrawal of the surge forces in Afghanistan, but added, “we will execute this
transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.  We'll continue to advise and assist Afghanistan's security forces to
ensure that they can succeed over the long haul.”

Some in the White House and outside it, nevertheless, oppose continued efforts in Afghanistan, and thus advocate abandoning the current
strategy or reducing force levels below what is needed to execute the mission there.  The question they must answer is: What part of the objective President Obama enunciated in December 2009 has become unnecessary?  Do we not need to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity tothreaten America and our allies in the future?”  Do we not need to prevent the Taliban from threatening the Afghan government?  Do we not need to build the capacity of our partners and allies—including Afghanistan—so that they can take responsibility for Afghanistan’s future, thus preventing the “cancer” that had taken root there from returning?  Do we seriously think that the killing of one man, however important, ends the threat to the United States and thus removes the entire region from the list of America’s national security interests?

Above all, if we abandon our current efforts in Afghanistan either by accepting defeat or by declaring success before actually achieving it, what will prevent al Qaeda and its affiliates from re-establishing their bases there and resuming their efforts to attack and kill Americans?

The American people deserve a serious, thoughtful, and detailed answer to those questions from anyone seeking the responsibility to keep them safe.

Kagan is the director of the AEI Critical Threats Project and a former professor of military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

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soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. duckforcover

    I keep clicking 'intelligence' on this site but never seem to find any. What's up with that?

    November 15, 2011 at 11:39 am | Reply
  2. deanst

    Dear God – Please excuse our sins of murder, greed and arrogance – like the constitution, we don't need them anymore...

    And thanks for being on the Christians side, your other children are animals! I know you are perfect, but you may have made a mistake with the Muslims, South/Central Americans, Asians and other people who don't look like Jesus does in my Sunday school paintings...

    I'm so glad you picked OUR side.

    Can I have a Ferrari?

    Love Dean

    November 14, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Reply
  3. Marzipann

    Yes, people are tired of the war in Afghanistan but sometimes you do not have the luxury of choosing whether or not to go to war. The reality is that the US was attacked by these people and almost certainly will be attacked again – with the probability increasing if some or all of Afghanistan falls under the Taliban's sway. It's too bad so many people were swayed by the empty headed rhetoric of the Bush administration (Invasion of Iraq, No Nation Building, Mission Accomplished, ad infinitum, ad nausum). Had we made a significant investment in time and resources post invasion the boys would be home and the total cost of the war would have been much less.

    Unfortunately judging from these posts we failed to learn the real lesson, that war is not a game and you can't just decide to go home when your tired of it. It required dedication, money and lives – and if you take your eyes off you will loose. Cheney and Rumsfeld didn't want to pay the real bill (in money and human resources), let themselves get side tracked by military adventurism and allowed AQ to get back in the game.

    That's our fault as citizens by the way – we elected them and we got what we voted for. We failed to critically examine their statements and accepted what they said at face value. Maybe if more people took the time to educate themselves we wouldnt be in this mess now. But we are and so we soldier on.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  4. Skorpio

    Afghanistan needs mass conversions to any other religion except Islam. This evil religion is the root of the problem and Muslim clerics (ayatollahs, muftis, imams, sheiks, mullahs, ulemas, etc) are the puppeteers who control the strings of their people. Islamic clerics are the main instigators of all violence around the world, they are like rabid dogs, unless they are eliminated, the disease will continue forever.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  5. Lliam

    The hardest thing for so called educated people to understand is you cannot save people from themselves.

    November 11, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Reply
    • markjuliansmith

      Themselves=Nature determined by their Foundation Text

      Why winning in Afghanistan is not going to be achieved is because the cultural relative policy makers in control of framing the abysmal outcome are dealing with the results not the cause.

      The cause being 'themselves' being formed by foundation text particularly as it defines Other.

      Also the utilization of coercion to the degree which is required not on the battle field but in changing the foundation text to align to non-violence against Other the actual reason the US went into Afghanistan in the first place is not going to take place. Because anyone saying the obvious Its the Foundation Text or Change nothing" – is called a "insulting, dangerous, and wrong" racist bigot and informed the world is so much more complex than one liners.

      Time is needed to change foundation text which is the bed rock of any society. If NATO pulls out in the time frame given within ten years after this pullout NATO or what left of it will have to go in again and if they have not learnt why it will be a repeat performance.

      November 12, 2011 at 9:22 am | Reply
  6. Bill

    Invading countries on the other side of the world to prevent "terrorism" in the US is the worst kind of stupidity. Work with our Canadian friends to secure the ports of entry in Canada and the US, secure out southern border and terrorists can then plot anywhere they want and if they can make the swim, good luck. We have Border Patol, Immigration, Coast Guard, TSA etc. etc. etc. already, If we run the terrorists out of Afghanistan, what ? We invade the next 3rd world country they hide in ? How much of the world do we need to chase these nut cases through and how many people do we alienate or worse incite to hate us by this ridiculous policy? How much cheaper would it be to use our natural defenses of the surrounding oceans vs. running rampage 1/2 a world away looking for nut cases in caves that make up 1% of the native population in some foreign land. Unless they posses ICBM's capable of delivering a payload to the USA chasing these nut jobs is futile. And if they have ICBM's we already have a reply for that, we turn your real estate into glass. At the very least if this lunacy must persist, make the next country we invade and occupy the 51st state. At least then, at some point in the future we will have something to show for all the blood our brave men and women of the Armed Forces gave in service to our stupid shortsighted politicians.

    What do we need to achieve in Afghanistan in order to protect the security of the United States and its allies?

    Nothing, I reject the premise that Afghanistan is in any way a threat to the US and our allies need to either go "all in" in supporting us or look our more for themselves with their own resources. It is exactly that muddy poor thinking that got us into this chain of messes. You do not invade and attempt to occupy nation states over a handful of radicals that are likely not even citizens of that nation state its not cost effective for one thing and making our brave armed forces into policemen/security/occupiers is a horrible waste and so off mission it makes me want to scream in frustration.

    "we have apprehended extremists within our borders who were sent here from the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan"

    Secure our entry and borders and this issue cannot exist. A lot less real estate to deal with than trying to secure the ENTIRE rest of the world. (or is that the hidden agenda ? )

    November 11, 2011 at 8:47 am | Reply
    • markjuliansmith

      "Invading countries on the other side of the world to prevent "terrorism" in the US is the worst kind of stupidity."

      Consider if this is true for all cases? You may find Religions of Certainties recognize no borders nor know any boundaries regards treatment of Other.

      You really believe you can hide in your lounge room given the nature of the world today let alone the 1940s from such outcomes which flow from such a construction of Other, the perceived supremacy of the adherents and their destiny of Greatness guaranteed by none other than God Himself?. Hawaii, 9/11 ring any bells?

      November 12, 2011 at 9:32 am | Reply
  7. krm1007

    We are also aware of the other dirty games India is playing in the region...financing terrorists who are killing US/NATO/Pakistani troops ....undermining democracies, paying off some factions of talibans protection money so they won't do another Mumbai attack. India may pretend to drape itself in an American flag but it will never fool the world that the biggest threat to American interests in Asia and Middle East is India and their obsolete policies.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Reply
    • Davis

      R U Kidding !!! We know it all , you must be some Pakistani and your BS is foolish. You need some International Affairs lesson. Whole world knows who is enemy & trust me we will soon take them down like Bin-Laden DOG .

      November 10, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Reply
  8. krm1007

    India poses a clear and present danger to the regional security of the world. ...to USA...NATO...Pakistan and Afghanistan people and armed forces. Hindu cult extremism is on the rise and fanning all terrorism worldwide. Indians are the bankers to and financing terrorism and supporting Talibans and Al Qaeda and harboring them in India. These terrorists are being entertained in the Indian parliament building in New Delhi where they are residing and then smuggle dover to Pakistan in Indian Army helicopters. Shame on these Indians. Like the NAZI's they need to be stopped forcefully and immediately. If it takes bombing lets bomb India, if it takes Drones...lets drone New Delhi

    November 10, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Reply
  9. krm1007

    ARE INDIANS UBER TERRORISTS OR WHAT???? Forget the GDP, focus on these murder statistics.
    In India, millions of girls are strangled, slowly starved or simply tossed in the trash. Moreover, in India, at least 1,370 girls are aborted every day. As a comparison, some 250 Indians die every day in road accidents. Terrorists killed about six people, on an average, every day in 2009. In the last two decades of economic progress, 10 million girls have died as such in India.
    SHAME ON INDIA AND ITS BARBARIC AND MEDIEVAL CULTURE !!!
    Indians have killed more human beings (girls particularly) than Al Qaeda and Talibans put together.

    November 10, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Reply
    • Rosco1776

      Maybe they should be bombing us? You people better wake up, we are making more and more enemies every day!
      Let's take care of our own first! Get the log out of your own eye before helping your neighbor with his splinter.
      UNITED STATES
      Number of abortions per year: 1.37 Million (1996)
      Number of abortions per day: Approximately 3,700

      December 21, 2011 at 5:51 am | Reply
  10. Mary

    I agree that "The American people deserve a serious, thoughtful, and detailed answer to those questions from anyone seeking the responsibility to keep them safe." We do need to articulate our goals in Afghanistan more clearly. But the implication that withdrawing troops is the same as "accepting defeat" or "declaring success before actually achieving it" is wrong.
    A stable, secure Afghanistan is in our national security interests. But US troops can do very little to achieve this. They can't improve the economy. They can't teach governance. They can't make the peace process make the peace process work. Recognizing that the threats in Afghanistan are not just about security, and that we have to incorporate other tools than military force, is absolutely essential to developing a successful strategy.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Reply
  11. Zach

    For anyone interested in ending the war in Afghanistan, visit the Facebook Page titled, "End the War in Afghanistan Now". "Like" the page so you can spread posts (articles, wall posts, etc.) that are placed on the wall...the more people who like it, the more pressure we can place on our political officials. Also, read the 11 reasons why we need to end the war (located in the info section). Spread the word...Together, we can bring the troops home.

    November 10, 2011 at 11:39 am | Reply
  12. CousinIt

    From the article: "What do we need to achieve in Afghanistan in order to protect the security of the United States and its allies?"

    Answer: NOTHING. Afghanistan has no navy or air force. It is not a threat to us and has no way to invade even if it wanted to. As far as our allies go, to heck with them... let them solve their own problems. If we really cared about our national security, we would stop being the world's bully, close ALL foreign military bases, cut defense spending by 90%, and publicly execute every employee of the covert ops side of the CIA for crimes against humanity and acts of terrorism.

    The foreign policy "experts" on this site (or any other news outlet) are PAID SHILLS FOR THE DEFENSE INDUSTRY. The answer to every question is, "spend more on defense." These people are sociopaths who care only about their own personal fortunes, and don't care how much blood has to be spilled in order to gain it.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:58 am | Reply
    • Brian

      Really ? You clearly have underestimated the enemy that attacked us on 9/11 and has continued to attack our allies and our own assests ever since. My recomendation to you would involve traveling to the middle east and meeting some of these extremists first hand. Get to know them and then you can decide to just abandon operations againest them.

      This is going to be a long drawn out conflict with AQ. You are correct that Afghanistan does not have a military force that can target us, but the fact remains we have been targeted by elements within the region and leaving there now will not stop the attacks.

      November 10, 2011 at 11:25 am | Reply

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