Rethinking Objectives in Afghanistan

The United States invaded Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda. It should stay that way.

The sense of unknown was pervasive during the CIA's nightly al Qaeda threat briefings in the first years after 9/11. Was a second catastrophe in progress? Were its perpetrators deployed? Might they use chemical, biological, or nuclear material? Our knowledge of al Qaeda grew quickly in 2002 and afterward, but we knew that our window into the group was nowhere near good enough to assure policymakers, legislators, and the American people that we in the agency, where I served from as deputy director of the Counterterrorist Center from 2003 to 2005, could prevent another strike.

The United States entered Afghanistan to resolve this threat, to hunt those who had orchestrated the 9/11 murders, and to disrupt, then dismantle, the network that would organize future plots. The Bonn diplomatic process that resulted in the creation of Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul supported this goal of uprooting and eviscerating al Qaeda. We would help Afghanistan choose legitimate, competent leaders who would not allow terrorist safe havens on Afghan soil. But there was not going to be any nation-building effort, and certainly not on the scale of the Marshall Plan in postwar Europe. U.S. troops weren't fighting in the hills of Tora Bora as a result of civil unrest and Taliban atrocities: After all, we chose not to intervene in Afghanistan before the attacks, despite rampant human rights abuses and seemingly interminable chaos. We simply wanted to stop attacks at home.

Now, nine years later, the link between terrorism and the war is obscure. Americans now wonder why their sons are still fighting and dying for the Karzai government, with its periodic criticism of coalition operations and reputation for corruption, including during elections this year. Yet we are still there, perhaps because we have incurred such a cost by intervening in Afghanistan that we cannot bear to consider disinvesting. Perhaps because our national reputation is at stake: Cut out now and we will be perceived as shortsighted (remember the Somalia and Lebanon withdrawals during the 1990s), not a characteristic of great powers. This is not to say we should be cautious about setting withdrawal timetables; instead, our question might be how we maintain a counterterrorism capability rather than whether we have the capability to oversee a return to some sort of Afghan normalcy.

We shouldn't delink these problems, though, for brutal but inescapable national security reasons: If our initial intervention stemmed from the attacks, should not follow-on decisions, such as whether to speak to the Taliban about reconciliation, relate directly to the al Qaeda fight? If we want to destroy al Qaeda, does our current strategy of isolating the Taliban -- which has a far greater penetration of Afghan society and provincial life that we or the Kabul government ever will -- make sense? It does if we want to build a civil society; it doesn't if we want local Taliban leaders to limit an al Qaeda presence because it might interfere with their goal of creating an Afghan emirate.

Over the long term, the Taliban, a Pashtun movement with limited aims, will not threaten U.S. national security interests; al Qaeda, if it resuscitates, just might. More pointedly, a deal with Taliban elements might help us pursue al Qaeda and limit our investment in Afghanistan, but it will result in human rights abuses and, possibly, a new civil war. We might remember that these problems, however disturbing from a Western perspective, were not sufficient cause for us to intervene in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks. We went in for national security interests, not to extend good governance. If we believe that we now owe more to the country, after nine years of intervention, we should be clear about the implications: We won't be able to create a civil society; this expanded goal is not a part of a counterterrorism strategy; and our investment in blood and money will have to be far greater than it is today. We underinvested nine years ago; we are paying the price now.

If we return to linking these two issues -- al Qaeda and our intervention in Afghanistan -- we would have to accept a painful reality that no force presence is likely to change. No power, from the British to the Russians to any Afghan government, has exercised control over the country's ethnically diverse provinces. Coalition power has proved equally limited: When insurgents, in this case the Taliban, benefit from local support, even the most heavily armed and technologically adept foreign forces in history -- U.S. soldiers and Marines -- face an uphill battle in uprooting them.

Assuming both sides are willing to cut a deal instead, there remains, then, the question of whether the Taliban would have the capability to police the country -- and whether Taliban leaders, themselves Islamist ideologues, would acquiesce to the presence of foreign fighters who intend to attack the United States. Taliban leaders obviously harbored Osama bin Laden and friends in the past, but it's not clear how deep their commitment was -- they are local tribal leaders, after all, not global jihadists.

To prevent an al Qaeda resurgence, the conversation, long term, might center on how we maintain an intelligence-collection capability to detect terrorist training and how we strike quickly when we find any information suggesting that training is taking place. The fight against al Qaeda is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

Without foreign occupiers for al Qaeda and its allies to fight in Afghanistan, our job in Pakistan might become narrower, and more achievable. It is a safe bet that Pakistani authorities do not much care whether tribes along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan cross into Afghanistan to fight against coalition forces that are viewed negatively throughout Pakistan. But if we eliminate the cause for cross-border activity by bringing in Taliban elements, U.S.-Pakistan tensions will diminish -- we won't need help policing resupply routes through hostile tribal areas, for example, and we won't need to run cross-border military operations. Conversely, Pakistan might have more motivation to help when it sees a government in Kabul that allows the Pakistani Army to believe that its long-term goal of strategic depth -- a comfortable flank in Afghanistan that helps keep the focus on India -- isn't being undermined. Far from believing that we are an ally in this campaign, Pakistan now sees us as an unreliable, sometimes duplicitous, partner. Our support for an Indian seat on the U.N. Security Council is a good strategic move, but in the short term it will help cement Pakistanis' view that we will abandon them eventually in favor of a far more attractive strategic partnership with their rival in New Delhi.

It's an equally safe bet that Pakistani officials, including in the security apparatus, are deeply concerned about the Pakistani Taliban and its allies as they attack Pakistani civilians outside the tribal areas and threaten to expand the extremist presence into cities such as Peshawar and Karachi. If we can eliminate the allure of cross-border operations for jihadists in Pakistan's tribal belt, we might be able to more effectively accomplish what the British -- and the Pakistanis -- have done in the past: pit one Pakistani tribe against another, with a focus on isolating those that harbor al Qaeda elements. Rough politics, maybe. But we're not going to eliminate al Qaeda by Hellfire missile alone, and the Pakistani security forces have spent nine years showing us they're not going to do it either, especially not for us. The only remaining lever is those who own the territory -- the tribes -- and they don't operate by our rules.

We should go into any of these policy evolutions with our eyes wide open. A return of the Taliban in Kabul might well result in a renewed civil war as the Northern Alliance that joined us to oust the Taliban grows nervous that we will allow the return of their enemy, and rearms. Let's not sidestep the potential human rights implications either: Abuses will escalate, sharply. But we fought the Taliban because they harbored terrorists, not because they failed to provide a healthy civil society. For the future, nation-building will remain a mirage in Afghanistan, with nine years of futility as proof. But destroying al Qaeda is a reachable goal, and a far more salient one for the United States. We've now turned these priorities around.



The Pause Button

If the Senate kills New START, is Obama's Russia policy dead, too?

Jon Kyl has spoken. The Senate minority whip, emboldened by his party's midterm election gains, said Tuesday that the Senate shouldn't vote on the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty this year, likely sealing the fate of what would have been the signature foreign-policy accomplishment of U.S. President Barack Obama's first two years in the White House. If the Senate doesn't attempt a vote before the end of the year, the treaty's odds of passing will be even longer come January, with a thinner Democratic majority and a Republican minority that mostly agrees with Kyl; the prospect is now very real that New START will be consigned to the diplomatic scrap heap.

If this looks bad from Washington, it looks worse from Moscow. Kyl isn't just imperiling Obama's arms-reduction ambitions -- he's also diminishing the American president's credibility abroad. And in the eyes of Russia's leaders, he's casting into doubt the United States' commitment to fixing its relationship with Russia.

To the Kremlin, New START's apparent demise may well mean the end of an arms-control agenda that seemed on the verge of resuscitation by Obama after suffering clinical death at the hands of George W. Bush. Arms-control agreements gave Russia a sense of security in the post-Cold War era, when the former superpower was struggling to define itself in the shadow of a militarily superior United States. The agreements allowed Russian leaders to claim strategic equality with the United States, holding on to a small measure of great-power status. That came to an end in 2002, when Bush pulled out of the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

That the Bush-era policy of zero arms control is suddenly poised to make a comeback is definitely bad news -- not just for arms control, but for the entire U.S.-Russia relationship. Both President Dmitry Medvedev (overtly) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (covertly) have invested a great deal in a new relationship with the United States and, in the run-up to NATO's Lisbon summit this weekend, hoped for a similar "reset" with that organization. Now the hard-liners in Russia who argued that Obama's charm offensive was but a brief interlude in an otherwise hegemonic U.S. foreign policy will see their views vindicated by the START debacle. Those who doubt the wisdom of cooperation with the United States and NATO on missile defense will speak with more confidence. Russian strategists will see U.S. missile defense efforts in more confrontational terms. Instead of thinking about coordinating defenses with the United States, they will resume thinking about how to defend Russia from the United States. "The future of the reset process which implies the development of a partnership on security issues depends on the ratification of the treaty in one way or another," Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council of Russia's international affairs committee, told the Interfax news agency.

The Kremlin, however, knows enough about U.S. politics to know that Obama isn't the problem. As long as he's in the White House, Russian leaders will consider the reset halted, but not reversed. New START, after all, was a symbol of the reset, not the heart of it. For Moscow, Obama's most important -- and welcome -- decision to date has been to end his predecessor's efforts to roll back Russian influence in the former Soviet Union. NATO enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia has been put on hold. Arming Georgia has largely stopped. And Obama has scrapped Bush's Russia-centric missile-defense plans, with their radar and interceptor installations in the Czech Republic and Poland, in favor of a system designed to thwart potential threats from Iran. It was the unilateral and unconditional removal of these three irritants by Obama that gave the new U.S. president credibility in Moscow's eyes. As long as these issues are not revisited, the new cooperative relationship between Russia and the United States has every chance of continuing, albeit with new, more stringent limits.

Conversely, a material change in Washington's approach to any one of these points of contention would end the U.S.-Russia strategic cooperation -- a cooperation that is much more substantial and important than the United States' Russia hawks realize. Russia has allowed U.S. and NATO military transit through its territory and airspace, maintaining a vital northern supply route to Afghanistan. Moscow pleasantly surprised U.S. officials in September by not just supporting a new U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution on Iran, but annulling its sale of an air defense system to the country -- a decision that was controversial domestically in Russia. Moscow is unlikely to retaliate for New START's collapse by reversing itself on these goodwill gestures, but further cooperation will come at a higher price.

For now, the Russian leadership is keeping its cool. It does not want to appear panicky, so as to maintain the appearance that Washington needs the treaty as much as Moscow. U.S. politics being fluid, the foreign ministry has expressed a hope that New START may yet be ratified. It is not a given that Obama will be a one-term president, and as long as he is in the White House he remains a partner, even if his political stock has gone down.

Still, there is no denying that the next couple of years will be a difficult time in U.S.-Russia relations, even if they aren't a throwback to the late Bush years. The change in the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee from Democrat Howard Berman to the hawkish Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will be very noticeable. There will certainly be more criticism on the Hill of Russian domestic practices, and probably fewer congressional contacts with the Russian Duma.

For now, Russia -- along with other countries watching the nuclear-treaty negotiations from the sidelines -- has learned a valuable lesson about U.S. domestic politics. Partisanship in Washington has reached a new level, infecting not just longstanding domestic-policy disputes, but also foreign policy and national security issues. There was nothing anti-Russian in Kyl's move -- it was purely anti-Obama. To that end, he succeeded: The United States' allies and enemies abroad will probably pay more attention to the foreign-policy players in Congress and hold the president in somewhat lesser esteem.

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