President Barack Obama has a heavy burden in the next few days. He must convince increasingly skeptical publics in the United States, Europe, Afghanistan, and the region of two things: that the United States and NATO have a compelling strategic interest in Afghan stability, and that they have the will and partners to succeed. This first of two articles addresses the first issue.
Is there something in Afghanistan worth fighting for? The short answer is yes. But the long answer is complicated. Unlike the clarity in the weeks following 9/11, there is no single reason, standing alone, that makes the case. It is rather a series of interrelated concerns that when considered as a whole make continued, robust engagement in Afghanistan the best of a series of bad options. To put it another way, as difficult as it will be to fulfill the promises we've made to the Afghans over the last eight years, the alternatives are far more dangerous, dispiriting, and unpredictable.
As with the initial casus belli in 2001, the argument begins with al Qaeda, or more accurately the network of militant jihadi groups anchored in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region for the last few decades. In the United States at least, all sides seem to agree that the threat posed by extremist Islamist terrorists remains, as Obama said in March at the end of the first 60-day regional strategy review, a "vital national security interest."
We continue to face a determined and resourceful enemy that sees this conflict in cosmic terms. Eight years after the September 11 attacks, top al Qaeda leaders have evaded capture and have managed to plan or at least inspire significant terrorist attacks and numerous other plots in major Western cities. Although the planning, funding, training, and recruiting for future attacks may not necessarily happen only in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, increased operating space for militants in that region will make it easier and more likely.
This base remains practically and psychologically important to al Qaeda. Al Qaeda was born in the Pashtun belt, and intermarriage and familiarity make this the "home field" -- far more than Somalia or Yemen. The jihads that drove out the "infidel" British and Soviet empires were launched here, and success in driving out the Americans would immeasurably bolster the reputation and fortunes of the militants.
We need to see the context, as they do, in both local and global terms. At the local level, al Qaeda, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and other affiliated groups have very specific, concrete aims: to drive out the "occupiers" and overthrow the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, etc., replacing them with an Islamist caliphate. Such victories would yield territory and potentially other assets such as weapons and natural resources. On the global level, al Qaeda wants to be the standard-bearer for Islamic unity and triumph over Western hegemony. The re-Talibanization of Afghanistan would stand as a beacon for jihadist struggle against established powers from Egypt to Indonesia.
However, the U.S. president cannot, and should not, rely exclusively or even primarily on the threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates to argue that the United States has a critical interest in Afghan stability. The events of September 11, 2001, may have provided, in October 2001, an all-engrossing rationale for the invasion of Afghanistan, but they do not hold that same power today. Not only have eight years passed without a major attack on U.S. soil, but the focus in Afghanistan quickly evolved into something far more complex than just hunting terrorist criminals.
In the last few years a new and perhaps even bigger problem has emerged for the United States and its allies: the stability of Pakistan. In a country of 170 million Muslims with as many as 100 nuclear weapons and semi-permanent conflict with its nuclear neighbor India, the prospect of collapse or militant takeover in Pakistan is a nightmare scenario of global dimensions.
In sheer human terms, the cost of conflict in Pakistan is immense. When the Pakistani military moved into the Swat Valley to fight militants challenging the writ of the central government, more than 2 million people were displaced. A wave of suicide bombings across the country in the last few months alone has killed hundreds and sparked fear into millions.