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.