Mr. President: It's Time to Rethink the Entire Afghan War Policy, Again

07/06/2010 12:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Speaking at West Point last December on the war strategy in Afghanistan, President Obama did not mince words: "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." So where are we in the fight against al-Qaeda in the region? According to National Security Advisor General Jim Jones back in October 2009, al Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan was "very diminished," and the maximum number of al Qaeda fighters remaining was "less than 100." Al Qaeda has "no bases and no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies," Jones continued. Furthermore, CIA Director Leon Panetta estimated last week that Afghanistan was home to "no more than 50 to 100 al Qaeda terrorists." Given the President's articulation above on the strategy moving forward, why on earth are there 130,000 U.S. and NATO troops currently deployed in Afghanistan? In the worst case scenario, that's 1,300 soldiers and a billion dollars spent for every remaining member of al Qaeda.

Overlapping the President's overarching goals with the most recent estimates of a severely weakened al Qaeda would lead one to believe that the U.S. engagement was largely successful, and should therefore reorient its strategy and mission to instead root out al Qaeda along on the vast unregulated areas bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the Long War Journal, a blog that uses news media reports to count CIA airstrikes in Pakistan carried out by aerial drones, there have been 144 such strikes since the program began in 2004; 134 of those strikes have taken place since January 2008. In other words, the dilemma along the Af-Pak border is already being dealt with by the CIA, who are undeniably engaged in a very tough environment against incredibly elusive enemies. And short of sending an onslaught of American troops onto Pakistani soil, the CIA's aerial war, it seems, is currently the only option for the United States. If al Qaeda is almost annihilated in Afghanistan, and if the CIA is on top of Pakistan, again I ask, why on earth are there 130,000 U.S. and NATO troops currently deployed in Afghanistan?

If the answer to that question is that we're fighting the Taliban to prevent them from regaining control of the state and harming the U.S. and her allies, as many in favor of continued force and a massive troop presence argue, then the logic is deeply flawed. The Taliban do not pose a direct threat to the United States. In fact, U.S. officials shaping the war strategy in Afghanistan admitted this reality last October. Moreover, the Taliban's official statement of purpose regarding their attacks on international forces described their efforts as purely a fight to expel foreign invaders and to establish an Islamic state, and how they have absolutely no agenda to "harm other countries." Yes, we cannot take their statement without reservations, but we certainly cannot dismiss the reality on the ground as one which is completely misaligned with the President's stated overarching goals for the mission in Afghanistan.

U.S. and NATO forces are not chiefly in Afghanistan to prevent the creation of an Islamic state, nor are they there to liberate women and promote human rights, nor are they there to establish a democratic, stable and secure Afghanistan--all very noble and worthy endeavors, but not the number one priority of the war effort. If the Obama Administration wants to sell continued engagement in Afghanistan in the name of advancing the rights of women and girls, he must state the argument made by his Ambassador of Global Women's Issues, Melanne Verveer. Last week, Amb. Verveer stated that, "Around the world, the places that are the most dangerous for women also pose the greatest threats to international peace and security. Where women are oppressed, governance is weak and extremism is more likely to take hold." Afghanistan is a prime example of such cascading effects. That is an argument both to stay the course militarily in Afghanistan against the Taliban and their ideal of establishing a state based on a perverse interpretation of Islam, while also calling for all elements of national power to lift the status of women and girls in Afghan society. Even in this scenario, however, would a continued fight at the current cost be worth it?

There are ways of continuing this war in the right manner for the right reasons, but this administration has failed to articulate a coherent vision that aligns with the way in which this battle is currently being fought. According to the President, the overarching goal is to defeat al Qaeda and permanently disrupt their capacity to plan future attacks against the United States and her allies. That is the core mission. That is the reason for this war. And in that regard, the U.S. has been successful in its pursuit.

Therefore, President Obama should take three actions: declare victory against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; drastically reduce the number of U.S. and NATO troops in the country while maintaining a light force of purely special operations units to continue to capture or kill what's left of al Qaeda; and redefine the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship by tying many of the noble and worthy goals listed above to all future foreign aid--a figure thus far totaling nearly $50B since 2001 (not including NATO's expenditure of $14B in 2009 alone). With more than $3B in declared cash openly flown out of Kabul International Airport in the past three years--a sum so large that U.S. investigators believe top Afghan officials and their associates are sending billions of diverted U.S. aid and logistics dollars and drug money to financial safe havens abroad--there needs to be both accountability and conditionality on such massive influxes of foreign dollars.

When the rhetoric of the effort fails to match the reality of the engagement, you end up with the longest war in American history with no end in sight. It's time President Obama rethought the entire Afghan war policy, again, and come to the right conclusion this time.

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For more articles by Rahim Kanani on Afghanistan, click here.