A new U.S. strategy is coming in Afghanistan, one that will look a lot like the “surge” approach that improved conditions in Iraq. It will mean a deployment of more troops, and probably a focus on a wider geography both in the country and in the no-man’s-land of the border regions. Though the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was the appropriate response to the 9-11 attacks, there was little discussion then of the ultimate goal of that military incursion, beyond capturing Osama bin Laden, “dead or alive,” as President Bush put it.
Revisiting the political goals the U.S. hoped to achieve with its invasion should come before Congress approves a new strategy. Central to those goals should be a consideration of how U.S. national security is served by military action and at what point the U.S. can claim to have achieved reasonable protection from threats from within that country.
Ostensibly, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan aimed to depose the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist group that began running the country in the late 1990s, because the Taliban gave safe haven to al-Qaida and its leader, bin Laden. But early on, there was no talk of “regime change,” or of creating a democracy in Afghanistan. Americans supported the action because it seemed eminently just to kill those responsible for 9-11, and to destroy the organization from which it and other attacks sprang.
The Taliban’s goals are not synonymous with those of al-Qaida, though their leaders would find much on which to agree. The Taliban came to power in the late 1980s and early 1990s after the Soviet Union abandoned its military occupation of Afghanistan. Amid chaos and lawlessness, the Taliban established order among the people, and continued a hard line against communist activists. In fact, the U.S. gave the Taliban $43 million in May 2001 to support its anti-poppy cultivation efforts.
The Taliban became U.S. Public Enemy No. 2 (before Saddam Hussein supplanted it) because it refused to hand over bin Laden. Taliban leaders, though reportedly unaware of the 9-11 plot, view bin Laden as a national hero for his fight against Soviet aggression.
So while negotiations with the Taliban may seem like capitulation, they actually would be more akin to reconnecting with a former ally. Of course, the Taliban’s views on education, women’s rights and free elections do not jibe with those Americans, but the U.S. has working relationships with many nations with which it does not share such values.
The new U.S. strategy must be tied to the fate of al-Qaida and other groups that would attack American interests abroad and at home. If such threats can be reasonably neutralized, then the strategy will have succeeded. If the U.S. instead aims to remake Afghanistan as it has remade Iraq, it risks re-sembling the last occupier. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that a senior U.S. military official asked, “How many people do you bring in before Afghans say, ‘You’re acting like the Russians’?”
In the war for the hearts and minds of Afghanis, that is an important question.