Eight Years In, Bush's War Becomes Obama's

What will our eight years and 791 American lives yield in Afghanistan?

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Eight years ago today, George W. Bush addressed the nation to announce military actions in Afghanistan. "On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan," he said from the White House. "The battle is now joined on many fronts. We will not waiver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail." Today, as American casualties near 800 and President Obama refuses to withdraw troops from what is increasingly called "Obama's War," the questions of how to finally succeed, and whether we can at all, weigh heavily. What will our time and blood yield?

  • Treat Afghanistan like North Korea  Foreign Policy's Dan Reiter says we must abandon the WWII-era mentality that total military dominance achieves victory. "Eight years later, Afghanistan has neither stability nor democracy, much less prosperity," he writes. "Total victory, in the sense of complete military success followed by the complete elimination of a threat, is not a viable U.S. policy option in the 21st century. War is unlikely to bring security. But security can be had without war." Reiter proposes North Korea and Iran as models of states that, though clearly less than ideal, maintain peaceful if tense relations with the U.S. built on sanctions, inspections, and negotiations. "Americans do not die in the course of diplomacy or inspections. The United States will not spend a trillion dollars executing economic sanctions. And, these approaches do not spur global anti-Americanism, and like it or not there is an important 'popularity contest' element to the war on terror."
  • We Picked the Wrong Battlefield  The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg repeats his call to reconsider fighting in Afghanistan when both al Qaeda and the Islamist movement it represents are creations of Arabs. "Afghanistan did not produce the terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, nor did it have a central role in the creation of the ideology of those terrorists," he writes. "A more central front is Pakistan; another more central front is Yemen. Cairo, London and Paris are also central fronts. Iran is a central front of a different sort. And yes, Iraq is a central front. But Afghanistan?" He sighs, "Victory in Afghanistan won't do much to change what is essentially an Arab problem."
  • What's 'Acceptable Activity'?  Spencer Ackerman, reacting to the rising use of drones and high-value-target assassination, stresses "the need for the nation to come to an actual consensus on what's acceptable activity here. It has to be as open as possible, with as much congressional support as possible, and as much public support as possible. (I recall a certain DFHer general saying, 'At the end of the day, we would be in much worse shape to have a decision made without that level of public debate.')" he writes. "I'm not really sure what legal impediments are actually in place here that would endanger the warfighters or the intelligence operatives, and certainly Congress hasn't received word of them."
  • If Al Qaeda Left, So Should We  Dday asks, why bother staying? "We know right now that there are no signs of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan," he writes, citing Generals Petraeus and McChrystal as well as Obama's statement that al Qaeda has "lost operational capacity" there. He also cites a report that the Taliban controls 80% of the country. "So the Taliban has been in control of at least half the country for at least two years, more than enough time for Al Qaeda to pack up from the border region and reinstall themselves into these safe havens," he writes. "This persistent lie about Al Qaeda's aims in the region underpins the entire case for escalation, just the way the domino theory underpinned consistent troop buildup in Vietnam. And yet nobody in the media, up to and including Chris Matthews today, has bothered to challenge this basic falsehood."
  • Look to Pakistan  Herlan Ullman of the Atlantic Council explains why Pakistan is more important than Afghanistan and what we can do about it. "In this debate over Afghanistan, Pakistan should dominate our thinking and our future actions. Whether the Karzai government falls or stands, a stable Pakistan is still the only barrier to contain the spread of jihadi-backed violence," Ullman writes. "Pakistan's military still does not have the equipment for fighting and winning the battle against the insurgency it is waging. [...] as Pakistan faces dangers from both the east and west, India's increased defense spending and decision to field higher yield nuclear weapons will reinforce Pakistani arguments that regard the existential threat emanating from India.
  • Decide What Success Means  Marc Lynch insists that the many-sided Afghan debate must find consensus on how to measure success "Is there any serious reason to believe that the current requests -- whether 40,000 or some other figure -- will be adequate to the task?" he asks. "For everyone involved in the debate -- including me -- what specific developments, metrics, or events would lead you to change your mind?  What are the things which, if observed over the next year, would lead you to support a different policy? For me, it's perhaps the consolidation of a more legitimate Afghan political order and stronger evidence that Afghans and Pakistanis shared America's conception of interests.  For Steve Biddle yesterday, it was the opposite: evidence that 12-18 months of sustained American efforts had not improved Afghan governance or political legitimacy. For Nagl, it was Pakistan giving up its nuclear weapons."
  • Partner With China  Robert Kaplan argues in the New York Times that the U.S. and China should be natural allies in Afghanistan. "In Afghanistan, American and Chinese interests converge. By exploiting Afghanistan’s metal and mineral reserves, China can provide thousands of Afghans with jobs, thus generating tax revenues to help stabilize a tottering Kabul government. Just as America has a vision of a modestly stable Afghanistan that will no longer be a haven for extremists, China has a vision of Afghanistan as a secure conduit for roads and energy pipelines that will bring natural resources from the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. So if America defeats Al Qaeda and the irreconcilable elements of the Taliban, China’s geopolitical position will be enhanced."
  • More Troops on the Ground, As Long as Needed  Sarah Palin joins those calling for a sustained troop increase. "We can win in Afghanistan by helping the Afghans build a stable representative state able to defend itself. And we must do what it takes to prevail. The stakes are very high. The 9/11 attacks were planned in Afghanistan, and if we are not successful there, al Qaeda will once again find a safe haven, the Taliban will impose its cruelty on the Afghan people, and Pakistan will be less stable," she writes. "Now is not the time for cold feet, second thoughts, or indecision -- it is the time to act as commander-in-chief and approve the troops so clearly needed in Afghanistan." She joins a long list of commentators.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.