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The Purpose of the Afghan War

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
September 21, 2009

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The publication of the confidential U.S. strategy review in Afghanistan in today's Washington Post affirms what is already largely known--U.S. military commanders are worried about the course of the war and are signaling the need for thousands more troops. But the assessment from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, submitted to President Barack Obama on August 30, is sure to spur more discussion over the aims of the war. Obama himself asserted on September 20 that there will be no automatic ramping up of U.S. forces despite the stream of warnings from top U.S. military officials.†"I don't want to put the resource question before the strategy question," Obama said on CNN's State of the Union.

Obama has previously stressed the importance of a stable Afghanistan in the effort to bolster Pakistan's government and pursue al-Qaeda safe havens in that country's tribal areas. Yet some voices in Obama's own Democratic Party in Congress are raising strong doubts about the objectives of the Afghan campaign. Last week saw a surge in briefings in both legislative chambers from experts supporting and opposing an increase in U.S. troop levels there. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle said the decision of whether or not to escalate forces was a "close call" but he came down on the side of increasing troops because of the importance of preventing "Afghan chaos from destabilizing its Pakistani neighbor."

The Weekly Standard's Reuel Marc Gerecht also cites the importance of Afghanistan in the high stakes struggle under way in Pakistan. Gerecht stresses that the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan serves to aid in the Pakistani government's battle with Islamic militants. He writes: "Islamabad appears to be slowly and bloodily winning the battle against its own militants, who want to push the country toward a religious civil war. The American army in Afghanistan is allowing the all-critical Afghan Pashtun community time to recover from the Taliban--giving it the chance to develop a competitive ideology that comprises Afghan nationalism, Pashtunism, and serious religion."

In an opposing view (PDF), expert Rory Stewart told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that while Pakistan does indeed pose a greater threat as an al-Qaeda haven, surging of U.S. forces and material into Afghanistan would a mistake. He casts doubt on the ability of Western forces to prevail in a lengthy counterinsurgency campaign and recommends a reduction in foreign troop levels from ninety thousand to around twenty thousand. "Even a light U.S. presence could continue to allow for aggressive operations against al-Qaeda terrorists, in Afghanistan, who plan to attack the United States," he said.

Additional Background and Analysis:

The Atlantic Wire surveys a cross-section of opinion about the Obama administration's metrics for success in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with Frederick Kagan saying they indicate a "continued commitment to a serious and properly resourced counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan" and Kevin Drum calling the metrics list "utopian" and a "hundred-year project."

On Foreign Policy, Small Wars Journal's Robert Haddick says Obama likely believes U.S. political support for the war in Afghanistan will evaporate if incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai's reelection is not considered legitimate.

NPR looks at obstacles facing Obama's plan to increase the number of U.S. civilian experts working in Afghanistan--including the difficulty convincing qualified civilians to go.

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