What should America's goal be in Afghanistan?
M16 American assault riffle cartridges lie among boot prints in the earth during Afghan National Army (ANA) training with the French army within the framework of Epidote progamme at the Kabul Military Training Camp near the capital on January 13, 2010. (Getty Images)
September 29th, 2011
05:00 PM ET

What should America's goal be in Afghanistan?

Editor's Note: Melissa Labonte is an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University. Peter Romaniuk is an associate professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

By Melissa Labonte and Peter Romaniuk - Special to CNN

Recently, after militants undertook a 20-hour assault on the U.S. embassy and NATO compound in Kabul, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, downplayed the implications. “This really is not a very big deal,” he said, adding that, “If that’s the best they can do, I think it’s actually a statement of their weakness.” Following the recent assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, former Afghan President and leader of the government’s efforts to negotiate peace with the Taliban, the ambassador should rethink his poorly chosen words.

The uptick in violence in Afghanistan includes multiple attacks in the capital (the British Council, the Inter-Continental Hotel, and the Afghan Defense Ministry), as well as the recent assassinations of four of President Hamid Karzai’s closest advisers: his half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai; Kandahar city mayor, Ghulam Haidar Hameedi; long-time mentor, Jan Mohammad Khan, and outspoken Taliban opponent, Mohammed Daud Daud. These events have occurred against the backdrop of a particularly deadly summer for U.S. forces – at 70, U.S. casualties in August set a record for any month in America’s near-decade long engagement. By any measure, the current situation in Afghanistan is a very big deal.

Crocker’s bravado echoes U.S. and NATO attempts to demonstrate a return on the massive investment of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. An April 2011 Pentagon report noted the “tangible progress” allied forces have made in eroding enemy morale and momentum. The commanding officer of Regional Command East, Major General Daniel Allyn, recently claimed that Afghan government and security forces in his area “continue to grow in capability and confidence.” And, in commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11 in Kabul, General John Allen, international force commander spoke of having “reversed the momentum of the insurgents … I can say with confidence that, together, we’re on the path of success in Afghanistan.”

True, levels of insurgent violence have dropped across much of Afghanistan, especially the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, where most of the surge troops have been deployed. But these deployments have merely displaced the violence, shifting the conflict to other regions or to some point of time in the future as U.S. and allied troops withdraw. Under these conditions, the gap between U.S. rhetoric and Afghan reality is unsustainable, revealing yet again the shortcomings of American strategic thinking about Afghanistan.

Beyond the defeat of al Qaeda, U.S. objectives in Afghanistan have meandered from marginalizing powerful actors like the Taliban, to state-building, to counter-insurgency (COIN), to decapitation (hence, the preponderance of drone strikes in the Obama era) and, most recently, to embracing reconciliation and negotiation with the Taliban.

Beneath this flip-flopping, a worrisome fact remains: America has misidentified its core interests in the region.  The U.S. has consistently set its political and military objectives very high.  It has assumed that Afghanistan is a place where a stable, democratic state can be readily built with infusions of foreign aid.  The prevailing COIN strategy has become orthodoxy despite the absence of reliable local partners and the knowledge that communities will remain under threat from warlords and the Taliban long after American and allied troops leave Afghanistan.

Tough talk this week from outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen, who charged Pakistan with supporting the Taliban-linked group responsible for much of the recent violence in Kabul, the Haqqani network, risks exacerbating the trend of strategic overreach. As long as America’s aims in this war remain fuzzily defined, the conflict will become further protracted.  Policymakers once again need to ask themselves: What do we want to achieve in Afghanistan? This time, they also must ask: What can we reasonably expect to achieve?

The U.S. long ago accepted that “victory” in Afghanistan would be unlike any other military “victory.” Commenting in 2010 on whether U.S. goals in Afghanistan could be achieved, Major General Bill Mayville, former chief of operations for General Stanley McChrystal, noted “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win.”  What we now face in Afghanistan is a failing state, under feckless leadership, plagued by a chronic insurgency.

Policymakers and military planners should frankly assess why its current strategy has yielded only more fighting over time and whether America’s best bet for ensuring stability lies not on the battlefield but in establishing far more limited and pragmatic goals for what success should look like in Afghanistan.  In 2009, the Obama administration debated between supporting COIN and a more limited strategy focused on counterterrorism.  That latter option should be revisited as U.S. and NATO troops withdraw to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become an exporter of international terrorism.  That’s less than what America and its allies have aimed for to date, but it would indeed be a big deal.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Melissa Labonte and Peter Romaniuk.

soundoff (130 Responses)
  1. brown

    What should America's goal be in Afghanistan?

    I think goal setting is supposed to happen before you start shooting. No?

    October 1, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  2. robbiy moore

    i thought the war was over the fact the taliban would not turn over bin ladden,but now that he has been killed ,,its comes out they made him leave afganistan before we attacked them so what was the reason we are there that is the million dollar question maybe because russia and brittish couldnt win against them so we tried to show we was the great world power after many lives lost and our country on the verge of bieng bankrupt we done no better than them

    October 1, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Reply
    • Name*whoever

      Just saying somebody gets it are we Alliance with them now and why are we so confident because what are we really trying to do...my guess is steal oil by drilling deeper and sideways to yep control the value of a dollar...what if we could do that and did would India and who prosper...we help everybody around India but why need to control everybody.. Korea is our worst threat if you understand drilling and what??? Just saying..we can push a button and destroy they have pull start planes and press historic mechanics...so why even do it..you want a guranteed. bet according to fantasy bets in vegas...here it is I bet 100000 dollars that our focus isn't doing the right thing it's greed and what does the bible first say then the coran. Second..greed is bad never be jealous and work hard and treat others the way you want to be treated...It also says give it all away..Peter I think...but after we take over everything are we really going to give it away..already did to who and why....

      August 18, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  3. soldier

    Nice picture of some blank casings... I could have taken that in my back yard.

    October 1, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  4. J

    AMERICA: A symbol of freedom and a beacon of hope!

    this is what we must fight for freedom for and give to lands from sea to shining sea! God Bless the U.S. and Obama!

    October 1, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Reply
  5. amarjeet

    It is always reasonable& & logical that objectives should be achieve able at personal level, family level & national as well global level. Anything beyond that is self-destructive. Resources get stretched out, density & strength are weakened & public start laughing on the aims of unachievable as other factors of nature, people, minds & diversity of thought work faster than planning strategy. Any long term solution becomes a long term problem. It is therefore worthwhile to accomplish the basics quickly like Obama strategy of killing terrorist heads, handover the reigns to local people & leave the rest for people to reform for the finale best they aspire. None can afford a hot war or chase for longer time. It wears out the war machine, country resources & above all fighting forces get tired & will to fight reduces as fighters develop attachment where the spend longer time & emotional leaning develop which factors are real & human. History of wars teaches but leaders do not learn as they just get voted to power without sound economic & historical perception. This is the reason why rotation of troop’s strategy is a tactical move by commanders but does not work long as Field commanders insist on longer stay for fighters become acquainted to local terrain & tactics. So the best is have quick over power, establish local control & stability with giving additional resources of aid to establish infrastructure, reforms of reasonable & effective administration, education, industry to improve economic lot which factors are the root cause of all upheave. Corruption free or virtual free, good law enforcement & laws, independent judiciary, people participation, industrial growth with energy development & effective infrastructure are the minimum needs to bolster up local to administer. In the growth there are loses as in families of growing children with a lot of waste & destruction & get stabilized with growth of responsible kids. People & public are no different as they too are part of community families. Hard liners policy may work but for shorter time as those who are victims or unhappy try to get away & reorganize which is just normal human behavior & nothing surprising. It therefore essential to let President of USA organize, carryout his job with liberty & resources as he is most responsible for America, its citizens & interests at home & abroad rather than criticizing, not providing the resources or make senseless debates to tell the adversaries that Americans do not agree with President which is worst of all tactics & strategies as well shatters the strength of a nation. Any constructive talk is good as it gives opportunity to power center to rethink & double check to commit more resources.

    October 2, 2011 at 10:21 am | Reply
  6. abc123

    Simple as this. Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. Some will say USA isnt an empire but it is in a sense. Its influence is long and it controls policies of many nations.
    But look at this america should leave now for if they do then the loss will be little. The money saved can remove some of the debt and in the end millitary spending can end a little bit. Let someone else take the lead maybe china. And let america take a rest.
    There is a time to keep fighting and there is a time to retreat. This is the time to retreat as it will be usefull and america will be able to fix itself and regroup comming back into the world stage stronger than what it is know.

    October 2, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Reply
  7. GayHind

    Imagine billions of dollars invested in the weopon industry of this country and No war? This peaceful country America will never end WARS because untill obyists have their intrests politicians have their intrests. Even the whole nation is on food stamps. Even the Mexico will become the world power. Even thousands of innocents will die. They will not end the war.

    October 2, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Reply
  8. GayHind

    While see the protest on the Wall st, India's GDP, Lines for the Food stamps . Recall the Article "garveyard of the empire". Seems like USA wants really to come out of the Afghanistan as he is looking for the Scap gaot as pakistan

    October 2, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  9. someone

    No, the goal is to waste as much tax dollars as possible on a war that has been over for years and only continues due to the fact that we remain over there getting citizens angry. Much of the middle east feels that the United States is trying to use Imperial tactics to evolve the Middle East into a Western Influenced culture, and it is not going to happen, and this is why fighting continues.

    October 2, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Reply
  10. Gen. WIlliam Westmoreland


    October 2, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  11. Jay

    Extremism emanates out of Pakistan. They want to control Afganistan. Pure and simple. And the funding of this is coming from China who has stakes in mineral deposits in Afganistan. US on the other hand probably wants control of opium. There is enough money to be made to pay off the debts.
    If we really want to get rid of AQ we would have gone to Pakistan. I would choose India any day over the two faced Pakistan.

    October 2, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  12. pb

    Our goal in Afghanistan should be now what it was originally: To bring justice to the people who committed 9/11. For some reason we have taken on nation building. It is not only bound to fail, it is bound to create adverse consequences for years to come. Imagine if the French had interrupted the US Civil war; that they came here and stopped the fighting. All of the issues addressed by the war would still be outstanding. No external force can impose a solution. Whatever a country must go through internally to determine who it is cannot be short circuited by outsiders. If the US Civil War had not occurred, we would still be arguing the issues it resolved. A country must go through its own passages. Bringing justice to the perpetrators of 9/11 and destroying Al Qaeda does not require that we build Afghanistan as a stable country. We have weapons that can target individuals, without getting involved in politics, building infrastructure, establishing the right for women to go to school, or giving money to a corrupt Karzai. (Exactly what we did in Vietnam.)
    Our goals in Afghanistan were met when Bin Laden was killed and the remaining culprits are being taken out with drones. As it turned out, the problem was in Pakistan. So any involvement with the government in Afghanistan is interference that postpones the day of reckoning for that country. We cannot short circuit the painful things they must go through. Nothing we build there is substantive; it wasn't built by the people there. It was imposed. It was fall by the wayside. We will think we failed. It this sense, we should hope it fails so the people who live there can do it the way they need it.
    A simple example: If the Taliban tries to stop women from going to school, and we create the schools and they attend school, what happens when we leave? If the men who are there didn’t think it important enough to do, why do we think it will live after we leave? There are men in Afghanistan. They have weapons. They did nothing to protect their women and allow them to go to school. When we leave, it will revert back to that. At some point, people will decide enough is enough. They will take up arms against the Taliban and decide what they want. Woman may free themselves to learn to fight as well: An armed woman stopping a Taliban’s acid attack. All sorts of scenarios could develop. But not while we are there snuffing out indigenous responses to what happens to them.
    We are blocking progress, not creating it. Every country must go through its own passage to where it will end up. We are wasting our time, resources, the souls of young men, and tax payers money on a task that is bound to fail – indeed must fail if the right outcome is to occur.

    October 2, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Reply
    • Cam Rankin

      You are right on, it is the will of THEIR PEOPLE, not our Govt. I agree 100%

      October 3, 2011 at 1:54 am | Reply
  13. socialchange

    How many more US troops must give their blood for the Unocal pipeline?

    October 3, 2011 at 12:28 am | Reply
  14. Cam Rankin

    We have Osama bin Laden dead. We have done the best we can to help support the country. I've seen many US and NATO troops give their life for this country, many of them our societies youngest and brightest. It has been a decade since we've gotten there, in that amount of time much of Europe was up to first rate standards after WWII. Freedom isn't free and it isn't dealt out by the USA. If it isn't the people's will then it isn't legitimate. They support the Taliban, or at the least allow them to operate. It is no longer our fight. Time to come home.

    October 3, 2011 at 1:51 am | Reply
  15. RichardZag

    The so-called War on Terror is a fraud. As the majority of people are now aware, 9/11 was a classic stand-down, false flag operation carried out by traitors based within the US. The whole notion that spending hundreds of billions of dollars invading and occupying Afghanistan in order to fight against a group that supposedly consists of several dozen people, who can be based almost anywhere, is clearly idiotic. The real reason for going into Afghanistan was control and theft of resources. It's time to end this criminal adventure.

    October 3, 2011 at 4:55 am | Reply
  16. rightospeak

    Get out ASAP . Have we not bled enough fine men and treasure FOR NOTHING ? Stop endless and all wars – period. We are bankrupt because of it . The poor people on SS did not cause our bankrupcy . Our sad state of affairs was caused by corrupt politicians like McCain, banksters on Wall Street , endless stupid wars, shipment of our jobs to China, open borders, importation of foreign workers on visas to lower our wages.

    October 3, 2011 at 9:41 am | Reply
  17. Meera

    Ah well, Dr. North ( EU Referendum) is an old friend, an dI'd awlays had a good relationship with him before but for some reason this particular subject made him bats and incredibly ill-mannered.He's simply wrong on this one,but I don't take it personally.I've awlays agreed with Cicero's injunction that the sinews of war are unlimited money. Cut off the money, you almost awlays win the war.I doubt we will deal with Iran during an Obama administration short of them passing a nuke on to one of the Hezbollah cells here in America, taking out a city and being linked to it.However,I would not be surprised if the Israelis took matters into their own hands here,even if it involves using nukes. I would if I were in their place, and I think the new govrnment coming in will be a lot less solicitous of America's foreign policy goals and much more concerned with their own survival.The frustrating thing is that dealing with Iran now would be relatively easy and cheap if Bush had possesed the gonads,and I wrote an about this,based on my ideas and the ideas of a couple of other members of Joshua's Army who's profession it is or was to plan out these things. As you'll see, Iran needs a war for the regime to stay in power,an d you're quite right, the match up between us has merely been postponed. it iwll simply be more costly when we get around to it.Regards,Rob

    March 13, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Reply
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    April 7, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Reply
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