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Is Afghanistan still worth it?

It's up to Obama to convince the American people that the costly conflict remains a 'war of necessity.'

September 11, 2009

Eight years ago today, Al Qaeda killed more than 3,000 people in coordinated attacks on U.S. soil that were conceived in Afghanistan, where leaders of the terrorist organization had been given refuge by the Taliban government. A month later, the U.S. government struck back, launching what has become America's longest war since Vietnam.

True, it has been a halfhearted war, underfunded and understaffed compared with the resources committed to Iraq, but it has been costly in life and treasure nonetheless. President Obama has said the Bush administration took its eyes off the prize in Afghanistan, fighting a "war of choice" against Saddam Hussein instead of fully committing to a "war of necessity" against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts. By contrast, Obama's policy, laid out in March, is to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda," and to deny it either a haven in Pakistan or a return to Afghanistan. He added 21,000 U.S. troops to the task -- bringing the total to 68,000 alongside 38,000 NATO soldiers -- and now is considering an assessment by the ground commander, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, that is believed to make a case for up to 45,000 more.

Like so many here and abroad, this page has grown increasingly skeptical of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and not because the memories of 9/11 have faded or the fears of another terrorist attack have receded; Al Qaeda remains a declared enemy of the United States and a threat to the safety of Americans. Rather it is because, eight years in, the protracted war and conditions on the ground pose questions about whether the fight in Afghanistan is still a war of necessity, or whether the United States and its allies have the means, the strategy or the will to stabilize the country under an able -- and legitimate -- Kabul government.

This war originally was presented as a mission to capture or kill the planners of the 9/11 attacks, and to ensure that Afghanistan did not serve as a base for further terrorist strikes. That was justifiable, and U.S. troops quickly dislodged the Taliban regime while chasing Al Qaeda from its training camps into hiding.

But today, the situation in Afghanistan is grim. Taliban insurgents have been regaining ground while U.S. military and Afghan civilian casualties are on the rise and the support of the American public is eroding. Far from vanquished, Al Qaeda is largely residing in the borderlands of Pakistan.

Afghans are increasingly fed up with the corruption and incompetence of President Hamid Karzai's U.S.-backed government. Now Karzai's reelection is in dispute. Government election officials say he won a first-round victory with 54% of the vote in last month's balloting, but the independent Electoral Complaints Commission says it has "clear and convincing" evidence of fraud, and it has ordered a partial recount. Karzai must win fairly or face a runoff. Simply stated, there can be no good argument for risking American lives in support of a government that is considered illegitimate by its own people.

Military options for stabilizing Afghanistan and preparing for a U.S. exit run the gamut. Some political and military analysts assert that the United States should pull out now and fight Al Qaeda from the air, much as it does in Pakistan. Others argue that the U.S. could maintain its current commitment but with a lighter military footprint, using its resources primarily to train the Afghan army and police forces to fight the Taliban on their own. Still others dismiss the first two options as ineffectual and argue for a beefed-up counterinsurgency strategy to beat back the Taliban while building up Afghan forces, government institutions and infrastructure -- "clear, hold, build," according to the Army/Marine Corps Field Manual on Counterinsurgency -- an Afghan "surge" that would require a commitment of financial resources and troops for several years.

Obama must now select his strategy on this vital matter of foreign policy, and he deserves an opportunity to present his case to the American public. But in our view, the burden of proof is on him to explain why the United States still needs to be in Afghanistan, and why that country is more of a potential terrorist staging ground than other hostile or failed states such as Somalia or Yemen, where we are not at war.

The threshold is highest, of course, if Obama asks for more troops. If he does, he will have to be perfectly clear not only about his strategic goals and how he hopes to attain them, but about the cost, the time it would take and how success would be measured. The public has yet to be presented with explicit benchmarks for assessing progress. Certainly one of those would be the amount of territory and population reclaimed from Taliban control, but first the administration must acknowledge how much the Taliban now holds or freely roams. We see no reason to keep this information secret. Karzai's government knows, as does the Taliban. Only the American people are kept in the dark.

Other key measures would be how well-trained the Afghan army is to do its own fighting and how prepared the Afghan police are to provide security; the International Crisis Group estimates that only 18 of the country's 433 districts have capable police forces. The level of civilian casualties would have to be another measure, of course. As would the level of cooperation from Pakistan, which is crucial to preventing cross-border infiltration.

But even with these yardsticks, it is not clear that the public would agree to an escalation of the war. If the president believes we should risk more American lives in Afghanistan, he must first convince us that the United States stands to lose more by leaving than it does by staying in a land that has seen other foreign powers come and go with little to show for their blood and money.

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