The choices for America in Afghanistan are simpler than they appear in the fog of political debate: We can win or we can lose. Definitions can be debated, but in short, victory will mean that Afghanistan will not be a sustainable operational haven for al Qaeda, its political and terrorist affiliates, or a base for aggression against the U.S. and its allies.
Two years ago when he announced a troop surge into Afghanistan, President Obama promised "troops will begin to come home" in July 2011. The White House is now reportedly engaged in an internal tussle to decide just how many troops should be part of that summer drawdown. As usual, self-serving counsel is being ladled out generously by politicos of left and right concerned by cost, endgame, and most of all, their own political prospects come November 2012. Ditto the White House, which is divided between partisans of Barack Obama (the president) and Barack Obama (the candidate).
Certainly, there are complexities to understand, but Afghanistan is not more complex than any other war fought at any other time. And there are core truths that are being obscured, sometimes deliberately, in order to design an endgame that satisfies political rather than strategic and military exigencies. Following are some of the key arguments against the fight, and analysis for how to think about them:
1) The partnership gap: This argument was a favorite on Iraq, too. Embraced by former National Security Adviser James Jones and outgoing Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry (among others), this line of thought suggests that President Hamid Karzai is too corrupt, selfish, or incompetent to be the partner who can manage Afghanistan and eventually allow us to leave. Accepting that Karzai indeed may not be the next incarnation of—whom do we trust? King Abdullah? King Mohammed? Prime Minister Maliki?—the slam on Karzai nonetheless begs the question: Whom do you wish to lead Afghanistan? Karzai needs to be improved, not swapped out for a better model. There isn't one. Proponents of this argument are basically saying: We can never win with this loser, so let's get out.
2) The ethnic divide: Perhaps nostalgic for the Great Game, someone always wants to divide up a foreign country. Vice President Joe Biden wanted to divide Iraq. Former Ambassador Robert Blackwill, a foreign-policy eminence grise, wishes to divide Afghanistan. Other than the subtle racism of ethnic determinism, the flaw in this argument is simple: It isn't what the Afghans want, and it won't solve the Taliban or al Qaeda problem. It may shrink the territorial challenge, if there are really long walls built between the ethnic sub-states of Afghanistan. But, in short, the gist of this argument is: Afghanistan's a loser. Let's divide it up and then leave.
3) The counterterrorism option: Secretary of Defense nominee Leon Panetta is said to be in the camp that wishes to continue the war in Afghanistan by remote control, substituting drones for boots and the CIA and Special Forces for brigade combat teams. This could be labeled the "feel-good-strongman option," because it envisions continuing the fight without actually fighting. It gives Afghanistan up as a lost cause and pictures us killing off enemies (if we can find them) with unmanned combat air vehicles, developing intelligence (without any forces to gather intel) and giving over territory to whoever wants it. Shorthand: Let's withdraw most forces now.
4. Graveyard of empires: History buffs like this. They point knowingly to Wikipedia entries about the British and Soviet experiences in Afghanistan. This is another variant of the suggestion that Afghanistan is too lousy a mess to ever "win" anything, too big, too complex, too riven by war, and too poor. Shorthand: We will lose; let's get out.
5. Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan: This argument is a 2.0 version of Obama's campaign trope that we were losing in Afghanistan because we were fighting the wrong war (Iraq). Proponents of the new "wrong war" line suggest that Afghanistan is merely a sideshow. And while it's true that Pakistan is a major part of the problem we face in South Asia, few are advocating that we invade Pakistan. As my colleague Fred Kagan has written, "Insurgencies with cross-border sanctuaries have two vulnerabilities—the loss of the sanctuary itself and the loss of the local networks required to make use of it." If we're not taking on one, we need to take on the other. But the real message behind the Pakistan-not-Afghanistan headline is that we should abandon the fight we are now in.
6. Al Qaeda is finished: This argument seems too foolish to credit, but on the night bin Laden was killed, many analysts told the world al Qaeda is done for. There are "only 100 al Qaeda remaining" in Afghanistan, so let's call it a day. Will they come back if we simply pack up? Or is the worldwide swamp drained and Afghanistan now so uncongenial that al Qaeda and its cronies will abandon their dream of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan? In short, this thesis presents a new twist: We have already won.
7. Negotiations are the only road to victory: Proponents of a negotiated path to peace in Afghanistan, among them Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, suggest that al Qaeda's "defeat" should bring the Taliban to the table for a political settlement to the war. While Clinton has not suggested withdrawing all troops, the subtext of this recommendation is that somehow the Taliban is divisible from al Qaeda and open to denying haven to the group and its allies. But while some in the Taliban may only be "soft" adherents, the senior leadership has rejected talks completely and has maintained ties to al Qaeda. Talking without holding the upper hand militarily is a recipe for disaster.
8. The economy, stupid: John Conyers writes that taxpayers can no longer afford this war. He's not alone, even on the other side of the political spectrum. In reality, even President Obama is not going to pull the plug and withdraw all of our troops from Afghanistan. The debate now is between a drawdown of 5,000 and about 15,000. The savings associated with that drawdown are tiny, particularly when measured against behemoths like entitlements. But even a total skedaddle from the field would net little. In the end, the savings will pale in comparison to the costs of losing the war.
If the United States chooses not to lose the war in Afghanistan, victory will not look like Germany or South Korea. But that should not be our aspiration. We cannot "nation-build" Afghanistan into a state it will not soon be—but it can be better. The surge that Barack Obama ordered so courageously in 2009 is working, and we must make every effort to ensure that, like the Iraqis, Afghans turn away from what Obama calls "the perils of political violence for a democratic process." In 2006, there was little faith that Iraq could ever work. In 2011, too many are pressing to choose defeat in Afghanistan. They may be hiding behind the economy, bin Laden's dead body, or a half-dozen other euphemisms for "surrender," but make no mistake: That is their aim.