As President Trump wrestles with America’s role in Afghanistan, he should first decide what our objectives are today compared to what we wanted immediately after Sept. 11, 2001.
Initially, the United States overthrew the Taliban regime but failed to destroy it completely. Regime supporters, allied tribal forces and opportunistic warlords escaped (or returned) to Pakistan’s frontier regions to establish sanctuaries.
Similarly, while the Taliban’s ouster also forced al-Qaida into exile in Pakistan and elsewhere, al-Qaida nonetheless continued and expanded its terrorist activities. In Iraq and Syria, al-Qaida morphed into the even more virulent ISIS, which is now gaining strength in Afghanistan.
In short, America’s Afghan victories were significant but incomplete. Subsequently, we failed to revise and update our Afghan strategic objectives, leading many to argue the war had gone on too long and we should withdraw. This criticism is superficially appealing, recalling anti-Vietnam War activist Allard Lowenstein’s cutting remarks about Richard Nixon’s policies. While Lowenstein acknowledged that he understood those, like Sen. George Aiken, who said we should “win and get out,” he said he couldn’t understand Nixon’s strategy of “lose and stay in.”
Today in Afghanistan, the pertinent question is what we seek to prevent, not what we seek to achieve. Making Afghanistan serene and peaceful does not constitute a legitimate American geopolitical interest. Instead, we face two principal threats.
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