June 19, 2018
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Afghanistan reconsidered

Eight years after the start of the war in Afghanistan, the way forward is not much clearer than in 2001. This fact itself points to the need for a thoughtful assessment of what the United States seeks to accomplish there and what it needs to do this. The analysis, rightly, needs to take place in this order.

A report from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, painted a grim picture. To change that, Gen. McChrystal called for a new strategy.

“The key takeaway from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way we think and operate,” the general wrote in his Aug. 30 report to the White House.

As the White House and Congress consider changes in strategy, former diplomat Mac Deford offers some good questions to consider.

For example, Gen. McChrystal wrote at length about the need to operate in Afghanistan based on a counterinsurgency strategy. Mr. Deford, who writes a column for the midcoast publication The Free Press, notes that a counterinsurgency is only as good as the government supports. Since the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is widely viewed as corrupt, does this undermine counterinsurgency efforts?

The Taliban was overthrown in the early days of the war and al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden, was disrupted and driven further into hiding. Mr. Deford wonders how you defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida when they have backing from neighboring Pakistan. “If Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal and its own insurgency, becomes increasingly anti-American because of our activities in Afghanistan and within Pakistan itself, how does that help us defeat al-Qaida,” he asks in this week’s column.

Whether more American soldiers should be sent to Afghanistan is already a divisive issue in Congress even though a request for a specific increase in manpower has not been made. Gen. McChrystal is expected to ask for an additional 40,000 troops. President Barack Obama says he wants to clarify the U.S. strategy and goals in Afghanistan before considering a troop increase.

The question, Mr. Deford says, is whether another 40,000 troops is enough to guarantee success or just enough to prevent failure. A corollary: will more troops be requested in the future? The success of strikes by unmanned aircraft will be part of that discussion. The recent killings of high-level al-Qaida operatives in such strikes suggest that they offer another tool in the counterinsurgency.

Questions like this will help focus attention on what is realistically possible rather than debating illusory goals.

President Obama has made it clear that the U.S. will not soon leave Afghanistan. The focus then should be on designing a strategy to move Afghanistan toward stability while ensuring it does not again become a base for terrorism.

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