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Re-Assessing Afghanistan From a National Interest Perspective

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The acronym MENA stands for Mission Element Need Assessment. It's a document constructed to objectively assess if the self-interests of the United States are compelling enough to warrant the institution of a change to national policy or the initiation, continuation or termination of national action including, but not limited to, acts of war.

A MENA supports what eventually becomes a combination of Presidential Orders, National Security Decision Directives and Congressional Acts and Mandates that instruct the country's apparatus to act accordingly. At this point in time with respect to Afghanistan, that process assumes that sufficient national interest exists to warrant that the United States needs to (a) conduct active military operations in the theater and (b) engage in a program of reshaping the Afghan nation and culture. This conclusion was arrived at nearly a decade ago by the Bush Administration and is currently embraced by the Obama Administration. The questions about Afghanistan boil down to (a) whether or not the conclusion is still valid and (b) what direction the dialectic is headed, so to speak.

Don't get me wrong. I have no trouble with pursuing our enemies to the ends of the earth and killing them. I remember writing cautiously about Afghanistan about a decade ago when Osama Bin Laden fled there and the process of winnowing down the Al-Qaeda network's influence began in earnest. I worried we might be doing some of it the wrong way. We had picked up where we had left off in the 1980's when the Soviet Union was the occupier fighting by proxy using local mercenary armies sprinkled with US advisors and leveraged by US aerial might. It felt too much like the toe dipping that got us into trouble in Vietnam. I also thought that in our myopia we were discounting too much the lessons learned by the Russian military in these very same mountains. I still contend that politically we could have -- and strategically, we should have -- gone in there and done the bulk of the job ourselves. Afghanistan should have been a lopsided battle between two foreign forces making as little collateral impact on the local populace as possible. It was not to be.

As Afghanistan unfolded I worried that actively continuing to fund and encourage the militarization of the Afghan regime -- and by consequence its domestic and foreign opposition -- and attempting to introduce cultural "American-style Westernization" into the country would have dire future consequences. This was not the Mesopotamia where the world's first great libraries were founded, where the Tigris River created the basis of national organization, and secularization -- granted at the hands of a brutal dictator -- had been established. No one has ever succeeded at permanently altering the cultural tribalism of Afghanistan. No one has because tribal organization is a natural equilibrium dictated by the terrain. An axiom of global stability applies, "Mother Earth does not care what the monkeys scurrying about on her surface think."

I actually like Afghanistan as a battleground. It's probably one of the world's best "kill boxes" for concentrating a threat and engaging it in isolation. The fact that Al-Qaeda was stupid enough to retreat there is what I like to think of as a "Blessing of Allah" giving the infidels the perfect laboratory to practice the Art of War.

Sadly, so far I think we've missed scoring our touchdown.

The threat to the U.S. National Interest which was once so clear you could use a push pin to mark where it was has become diffuse. The rules of engagement have become Byzantine. Strategic military advantage has steadily degenerated to it's inevitable stalemated equilibrium. And most dire of all, what we are seeing is the primary target learning to escape the ideal set-piece capture box and move eastward into the populated sanctuary of Pakistan where the potential regional destabilization of a sub-continent threatens to undermine future global stability.

The United States of America will follow that threat because we have to. Al-Qaeda remains a clear and present danger not just to our country but many others. I have no doubt that a multi-national mission to maintain contact and effect continued attrition remains necessary. Quite honestly, it remains in the world's interest to contain that threat in Afghanistan's remoteness and continue to extract as much attrition as possible. How well we can do this dictates when what must come next will happen.

The day when Afghanistan's battlegrounds will go fallow is coming. If and when the threat migrates, its value to the United States and the world will surely diminish below the effort required to be there. Then the Afghans will be left to pick through the detritus of our visit.

They are a resilient people and they've do so many times in the history of mankind. I'm not so worried about the power and politics of that country. I'm confident that no matter what we do, it will remain largely the same. They have within them an abundance of leadership, not always the kind we approve of, but then again, whose domestic political backyard doesn't look like that. It takes up to three lifetimes -- almost two centuries -- to slowly demobilize a nation of tribal armies. The Afghans have never had that much peace in their history. It's what they live with and truthfully, they're better at it than most people on this planet.

What I do worry about are the consequences of the feeble Westernization we have imposed on these people. We've installed a more efficient political apparatus in the hope that it will mean the blossoming of democracy and plurality. But history is full of instances where that infrastructure only served as a conduit for warlords with ambition to rise more rapidly to dictatorship. We've enabled -- make that encouraged -- individuals to dream beyond the limits of their mountains. Some have taken our admonition to heart. When at last our occupation ends, I fear for them most of all. Their suffering will likely be brutal. We will owe those who supported us just as we owe so many others before them that believed in our promises of what were ultimately to be unsustainable dreams. It doesn't have to turn out that way, but it will unless we make it important enough not to.

This is what rests on the shoulders of President Barack Obama. It is for him and his Cabinet to find peace with honor in Afghanistan. To set into motion how we will honor those who stood by us in the challenges they will face after we've gone. And to prepare and align our diplomatic and military forces for the next stage in the pursuit of those who seek to harm us. That's my mission element need assessment.