The Longest War: What is Our Mission?

Last Sunday, the New York Times described the campaign of U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis to expose systematic embellishment by top military leaders of the status of mission in Afghanistan.  In Davis’ Afghanistan, in which he traveled and interviewed extensively, Afghan police have made secret pacts with the Taliban, U.S. forces barely control territory outside their own bases, and trust between American and Afghan soldiers is deservedly weak.

Yesterday, the newspaper ran a first-person piece by two special forces officers, an American and an Afghan, published (but not written) to contrast with the Davis story.  In their Afghanistan, the Afghan Army is disciplined, patriotic, scrappy, and eager for American tutelage.  They offer some criticisms, too; we need to better value and train military advisors, emphasize personal American-Afghan relationships, and recognize less measurable but more important metrics as indicators of success.  But the message is clear: we should not give up yet.

Ten years, four months, and one week

It is possible that both of these accounts are correct; Afghanistan is a big place, and events on the ground change quickly.  But Lt. Col. Davis’ main rhetorical question “How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding?” confronts President Obama with a stark reminder of the consequences of prolonging the longest war in American history until 2014.

The answer depends on whether or not our mission in Afghanistan is vital, which in turn raises the question of what our mission is.  If the mission is to defeat the Taliban, and it is vital, then the answer must be: “As many men must die as it takes to defeat the Taliban, whether that mission is succeeding right now or not.”  But defeating the Taliban appears no longer to be our mission.  If it were, Mitt Romney would be right to charge that setting a date for withdrawal is foolish.

Instead, the Pentagon is focused on training the Afghan Army and national police to wield legitimate, monopolized force on behalf of a legitimate, effective central government.  Policy analysts and academics have proposed several compromise strategies, including decentralized as opposed to centralized governance and containment as opposed to eradication of the Taliban.  Total victory is no longer spoken of; the best the President could do in his State of the Union–“The Taliban’s momentum has been broken”–  was widely dismissed as wishful.  (Having campaigned on a platform of refocusing on the good war in Afghanistan rather than the bad war in Iraq, the President is heavily invested in an honorable drawdown that looks something like a victory.)

Defeating the Taliban is also arguably no longer vital.  America attacked the Taliban because it was providing safe harbor to al-Qaeda, which is now already in retreat in much of the world and is certainly no longer based primarily in Afghanistan (most of its leadership is in Pakistan, with other franchises emerging elsewhere).  Even if a strong, secular, friendly federal state emerged in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda would continue to exist.  One might argue that al-Qaeda is sure to flood back into Afghanistan when American forces depart, and that may be true.  But it’s difficult to see how prolonging our presence will permanently change that reality, especially now that the Afghans and al-Qaeda know our departure date.

Our soldiers are dying.  This war is long.  Neither of these things alone mean that we should end it.  But what are we trying to accomplish?

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