Which Way Forward in Afghanistan?

Elections and a new war strategy raise questions about how the U.S. should continue its eight-year old war

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This week, the war in Afghanistan will be subject to three major developments: elections, a major speech by President Obama, and report from the U.S. commander in the country that is expected to include a request for more U.S. troops. As casualties climb, observers deliver warnings on the dangers that lie ahead and also give advice on how Obama should proceed.

Threats Could Derail Election  The Taliban's threat to kill voters--or at least cut off one of their fingers--could spoil the election in more ways than one. As The American Prospect's Adam Serwer wrote, President Hamid Karzai needs as many votes as possible to secure a national mandate, and low turnout could destroy the election's legitimacy for ethnic groups whose support is crucial for a burgeoning central government. The election's "worst possible outcome," wrote Spencer Ackerman, would be a Karzai victory marked by "irregularities and denied legitimacy in the eyes of many Afghans but not the power of the presidency."

To win support across the country's ethnic patchwork, Karzai has won the support of regional warlords, but at what price? Juan Cole wrote that the danger of this strategy is that "building up the warlords only legitimizes their control of 60% of the country, and makes it more likely that the warlords will eventually find a way to marginalize Karzai altogether."

Best Exit Strategy I: Go After Al Qaeda  On the op-ed page of the New York Daily News, former NATO commander Wesley Clark wrote that the similarities between the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Vietnam are ominous. To avoid losing this time, Obama needs to "maintain a clear and unwavering purpose"--destroying Al Qaeda--"and not overstate our accomplishments," Clark advised.

Fred and Kimberly Kagan at the Weekly Standard said they agree with Obama's definition of success in Afghanistan: “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”

Best Exit Strategy II: Build the Nation  "It is by serving Afghan interests that we will secure our own," wrote The Guardian's Matt Waldman. "The focus should be on building a functioning, just and democratic state," he said. "It requires rigorous, determined and long-term efforts, combined with vast improvements in the delivery of aid. It is daunting and difficult, but the alternatives are illusory." Namely, just killing the enemy won't work because there are few leaders and institutions Afghans trust to fight the insurgents, Waldman wrote.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.