Imagine a child born onto Afghan soil in 1990, one year after the Soviets withdrew their troops. A fresh face, thrust into a country reeking of bombs, bullets, and bodies. If he's lucky, he survives his mother's pregnancy, but his mother does not -- Afghanistan has one of the worst rates of maternal mortality ever recorded. Now, in 2001, and at 11 years old, he witnesses the first regiment of the greatest fighting force on earth propelling down on his homeland. The next 3000 days -- or 8 years -- are gruesome, fearful, chaotic, and tragically, extremely formative. Assuming the young man was not killed fighting against occupying forces or suffered the awful fate of being caught in the crossfire, he has, at minimum, most certainly mourned the death of family members over the years. Now, in 2009, he is 19, and tattooed with a level of resentment, anger, and hatred against the U.S. and its' allies palpable to the residual sting of 9/11 amongst the American people.
8 years of hell is a very long time, especially when you are most innocent, most curious, and even more importantly, most susceptible to concretizing a set of beliefs about the world that have deafening effects on the trajectory of your life. Ask yourself: how have all my years in teen-hood shaped the way in which I understand and engage the world? With this scenario emblematic of the situation on the ground, the U.S. policy in Afghanistan must fold in the harsh realities of the Afghan people while balancing their own interests of national security. The Taliban, while vicious in tactic and extremist in ideology, do not pose a direct threat to the United States. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, must be denied safe haven, disrupted in plans, and destroyed in both structure and leadership.
With less than 100 Al Qaeda operatives left in Afghanistan according to U.S. national security adviser Gen. James Jones, President Obama must immediately shelf Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for an additional 40,000 troops and radically redefine the war effort from engaging the wrong enemy to engaging the right enemy. The policy towards Afghanistan should be an even lighter footprint -- primarily comprised of Special Forces and intelligence officers -- whose chief mission would be denying safe haven, disrupting plots, and focusing on the remaining Al Qaeda figures who pose a direct threat to U.S. national security. This policy should be more distinct than merged with that of the policy towards Pakistan, which is a very different beast, and requires a very different set of tools to carve out a solution. In Afghanistan, the only way to refocus the lens of the war back to 20/20 vision is to understand the intentions and capabilities distinguishing the Taliban from Al Qaeda. This change in mission is predicated on precisely this distinction, rather than defining the success of the effort on a seesaw balancing political progress with military benchmarks.
Even with a merged enemy, whether intentional or unintentional, and despite an astonishingly uncoordinated strategy among the U.S. and its' international partners, Al Qaeda is essentially defeated in Afghanistan. Great news, right? Wrong. With the Obama Administration labeling the problem, and therefore the solution, under an "Af-Pak" framework, Pakistan must fit into the picture somewhere, right? Right. Now the United States lacks a legitimate reason to flood the war-torn country with more troops in hopes of scaring the lawless territories of neighboring Pakistan into surrender -- a strategy inherently flawed in its own right. In an area where Al Qaeda leadership including terrorist kingpin Osama bin Laden are said to be taking refuge, the U.S. must work with the Pakistani government to design a more creative policy that either smokes out or enables precise targeting of terrorists peppered throughout their ungoverned regions. In the case of Afghanistan, the United States must first understand who their true enemies really are.
With no end in sight, the U.S. must realize the limits of intervention, both in tanks and treasure, and integrate the implications of their actions over the last 8 years into their policy towards the region. Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, such as the young man, now 19, and whose seminal years has been marked by death and destruction, cannot be achieved by deploying an endless torrent of camouflaged warriors. In a fight where the enemy has skillfully blurred the lines of their own intention and capability to harm the United States with those who simply do not possess a similar global reach, there is much work to be done, both intellectually and operationally. There are an unimaginable number of people around the world who wish to harm America; its America's job to separate their desire from their competence, and their will from their capacity.
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