President Hamid Karzai is the favorite in this Thursday's Afghan elections, but his reelection is no sure thing. It is quite possible that Karzai's main challenger, the former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, will force a run-off and even pull off an upset victory. No matter who wins, the imperative of America's military remaining in Afghanistan will not change. This is not a mission of charity and it is not a mission to build the Afghan state; this is a mission to defend the people of the United States. While democratic elections are a wonderful achievement, our mission remains the same as it was eight years ago -- to eliminate the Taliban and al Qaeda as deadly threats to us and our allies.
The Afghanistan conflict has long played second fiddle to the Iraq war in American politics, but it is, in reality, America's top national security concern. If America pulls back from Afghanistan, there is nothing to stop al Qaeda from regaining a safe haven in Afghanistan -- and al Qaeda has big plans for Afghanistan that would directly impact us.
Al Qaeda-aligned forces would become far more lethal if they gained free reign within Afghanistan. Imagine the threat to our country if the very same people who attacked us on 9-11 gained control of Pakistani nuclear weapons -- the threat of a nuclear Iran pales in comparison. Osama bin Laden' allies in the Taliban have already threatened and destabilized a teetering Pakistan and have even launched three attacks on Pakistan's nuclear facilities in the past two years.
Al Qaeda and its networks have managed to kill and wound over 11,000 civilians in the last 12 years. Much of this achieved by a diminished al Qaeda on the run. If allowed to operate freely in Afghanistan once again, we can be assured they will strike us and our allies at home, just like they did when they roamed unfettered in Afghanistan eight years ago.
Regardless of the merits or drawbacks of Hamid Karzai or Abdullah Abdullah as presidents of their country, the ultimate goal of our endstate strategy in Afghanistan remains the same: neutralizing Al Qaida and the Taliban so they can no longer wage war or terrorist attacks against us, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or our other allies. Clearly, we would prefer the Afghan government take on this mission, but until they can do so themselves, in order to prevent more American civilian deaths, we must do it ourselves. This of course means that we must help the Afghan government build its ability to destroy al Qaeda and the Taliban itself.
The Obama administration is very interested in the Afghan elections but has wisely refrained from becoming involved in the outcome. Special envoy Ambassador Richard Holbrooke clearly stated, "Our goal is to support and encourage a free and fair election whose outcome reflects the views and desires of the Afghan people." The US is being very careful not to be seen meddling in who is chosen next, so as to maintain a constructive working relationship with the next government in Kabul.
Hopefully, whoever wins the Afghan presidency will launch a renewed effort to defeat the Taliban and lead his people into a more stable, prosperous future. However, regardless of whomever that leader is, in order to defend our own security and those of our allies, we must remain focused on our mission. We must be prepared to prevent the very real threat of al Qaeda and the Taliban re-conquering Afghanistan and seizing Pakistani nukes. These very same people have attacked us before and will try to attack us again. This is not a mission of charity and it is not a mission to build the Afghan state; this is a mission to defend the people of the United States.
Jonathan Morgenstein is a senior national security adviser at Third Way, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank.