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Media Conference Call: Defining Success in Afghanistan

Speaker: Stephen D. Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Gideon Rose, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
August 10, 2010

President Obama's plan to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 has raised concerns over the direction of the war and prospects for stability in the region in the aftermath of a U.S. drawdown. CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle says expectations for "unrealistically rapid progress" in the war have made the public pessimistic, despite the fact that the Taliban has been eliminated from some of its strongholds and has failed to reestablish itself. Biddle notes that violence statistics are not a good indicator of the war's progress and that counterinsurgency can be successful, but there is also a chance it may fail. The United States is in "one of those moments where it's dark before the dawn and you don't know whether the dawn is coming or not," says Biddle. He posits that it will take at least a year to determine whether areas in Afghanistan have been stabilized and whether the COIN model is working.

Biddle says the July 2010 change in command of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan will not dramatically alter the conduct of the war, but he stresses that the WikiLeaks publication of the names of people cooperating with U.S. forces jeopardizes the ability of the United States to protect them.

Biddle also reviews Washington's arguments for continuing the war: The administration does not want Afghanistan to once again become a base for attacking the United States or to become a destabilizing force among its neighbors, especially Pakistan. "A government collapse and state failure in Pakistan is one of the very few ways that I think are at all plausible in which Osama bin Laden could get his hands on a usable nuclear weapon . . . our strongest influence over what happens in Pakistan is our ability to prevent Afghanistan from becoming an open sore that makes the Pakistani situation a lot worse," Biddle says.

Even though the cost of waging the war is high, Biddle points out that if the worst-case scenario emerged--if Bin Laden acquired nuclear weapons and used them against the United States--a U.S. decision to withdraw from the war early on would be seen as the "biggest foreign policy blunder" in the U.S. history.


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