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.

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