August 14, 2009

Should we re-assess the U.S. role in Afghanistan?

US Troops in Afghanistan

The recent appointment of General Stan McChrystal to command American forces in Afghanistan, and his recent hint that he needs more forces, raises an important issue. Perhaps it is an appropriate time to re-assess our role and mission in the country. Rather than merely continue a mission because "we are there," a fresh analysis may be in order.

As we all know, President Bush ordered American forces into Afghanistan in October 2001, following the September 11 attacks on the United States. The invasion was a direct response to the attacks, yes, but also a response to the Taliban-led radical Islamist government of Afghanistan after it refused to turn over Usamah bin Ladin. The Taliban became a tactical enemy, but the strategic target was Usamah bin Ladin and his al-Qa'idah organization (tanzim al-qa'idah).

In 2003, President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. Because of my own personal history with the regime of Saddam Husayn in the 1980's, then Desert Shield and Desert Storm, followed by a tour with the CIA Operation DBACHILLES, I had no problem with the invasion. Since I had participated in the unsuccessful effort to overthrow the regime from inside Iraq, I knew that the only an external effort - an invasion - would be successful.

That said, there were many critics of the decision to remove Saddam Husayn when we had not yet captured Usamah bin Ladin and were still engaged in Afghanistan. Although bin Ladin had almost certainly relocated to Pakistan, American troops were still operating against al-Qai'dah and Taliban remnants. It was probably at this time when the mission in Afghanistan fell victim to what we in the military call "mission creep."

In this instance, mission creep meant the transition from pursuing al-Qa'idah and Usamah bin Ladin to nation building in the basket case that is, and his been, Afghanistan. Combat troops trained to close with and destroy the enemy were now tasked with creating a democratic form of government, rather than hunting down the organization that attacked the United States in 2001.

For the next few years, the primary focus of the American military was Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Taliban reverted to an insurgent organization that challenged the fragile democracy created by the Americans. In the neighboring Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan, the Pushtun leaders, allied with their tribal brothers in Afghanistan, created a safe-haven for the al-Qa'idah fighters running from American troops in Afghanistan. it was not until the CIA began its armed drone operations that al-Qa'idah began to feel the pressure of American reach.

Faced with the expulsion from Afghanistan, relentless American drone attacks in the Waziristan area, increased Pakistani government operations against the Pushtun Islamists, the remaining al-Qa'idah fighters were ordered to relocate to Yemen and Somalia.

What is the situation today in Afghanistan? Are American forces engaging the enemy we set out to fight eight years ago? Are we attacking those who attacked us on September 11, 2001? No - we are fighting a domestic insurgency for the future of Afghanistan. Is that our mission? Is it even in the national interest? Does the failure of the newly-formed democracy in Kabul pose a threat to the United States?

I think those are all good questions. Soon after President Obama took office, he delivered an impassioned speech in which he spoke to al-Qa'idah - he told them we would defeat them.

That's the right answer.

Al-Qa'idah is the strategic enemy, the real target. Afghanistan and Pakistan may not be the place. Maybe we need to ask ourselves just what we are doing there.