- Thomas Ruttig: Real reconciliation in Afghanistan
- Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman: Unanswered questions in Obama's Afghanistan policy
- Brian Katulis: The U.S. still doesn't know what it wants to get done in Afghanistan
- Gerard Russell: Afghanistan still needs a long-term commitment
- Michael Waltz: Obama's dangerous message
- Masood Aziz: Are we making the same mistakes again in Afghanistan?
- Douglas A. Ollivant: In Afghanistan, huge challenges remain
America still doesn't know what it wants to get done in Afghanistan
It seems that the constituency for sort of starting to kind of end the longest war in America's history is pretty small, based on the initial reactions in America to President Obama's speech on Afghanistan.
Inside the Beltway, the initial responses were all over the map. Republicans are sharply divided -- some warned against mission creep and costly nation building, while others argued that America needs to stay the course and "win" in Afghanistan without defining what a "win" actually is. This confused reaction from Republicans is part of a broader dynamic I have written about before -- today's Republican Party is more divided on national security issues than it has been in decades and does not know what it stands for on foreign policy.
Democrats mostly expressed concerns about the financial costs of the operation, while others raised concerns about the size of the troop withdrawal not being enough. Despite these misgivings from both sides of the aisle, don't expect some sort of coherent political coalition to come together anytime soon to challenge the Obama administration's approach, for two reasons. First, the center of gravity in America's political debate is on domestic policy issues, not foreign policy. Unless some political movement connects the anxieties about the economy and jobs at home with what's going on with the administration's Afghanistan policy, then the war debate will remain mostly an elite one without the political backing from the public to achieve serious policy changes. Second, in the wake of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, President Obama has strong credibility and leverage with the American public on dealing with terrorism -- just before the speech, fully 63 percent of Americans approved of how Obama is handling terrorism.
Beyond the political reception, as a matter of policy substance, President Obama's speech took some steps in the right direction by signaling a drawdown of troops and flagging several important issues. But the biggest weakness of the speech was that it did not outline a clear way forward on many of the key policy questions connected with those issues -- including five key questions I raised before the speech in this article. For example, the passages about reconciliation in Afghanistan and the way forward in Pakistan sounded more like placeholders acknowledging their importance -- nor were these core issues woven together and integrated in what could be called a coherent strategy. This perhaps expects too much from a prime time speech aimed at the American public, but it augers continued challenges ahead in making the case for why the continued investment in Afghanistan is worth it.
Nearly ten years into the war, the missing ingredient from last night's speech was a clear definition of success in Afghanistan a longstanding problem for U.S. policy in the country. A decade in, the United States lacks a clear answer to the question: "How do we know when the job is done?" We are still in "we'll know it when we see it" territory.
In addition, the speech did not fundamentally resolve a central confusion at the heart of the Obama administration's policy objective defined previously as "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda." The Obama administration has said that there are few al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, arguing instead that most of the problem is across the border in Pakistan. In briefings and discussions before the speech, a number of administration officials noted that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have not posed a threat from Afghan territory in years. Some also made the case that keeping U.S. boots on the ground in some places only prolongs the cycle of radicalization. In the wake of bin Laden's death -- the only leader al-Qaeda has ever known, as President Obama pointedly noted last night -- the American public may understandably remain puzzled about why our country continues to spend billions of dollars a month in Afghanistan when we have serious economic problems at home, and face challenges scraping assistance packages together for other strategically vital countries like Egypt.
President Obama went into his speech last night seeking to strike the right balance between challenges at home and abroad, and between competing visions for the future of Afghanistan policy among his advisors. But the unanswered questions that remain about his strategy, and the lack of a clear definition of the end state America is working towards in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, remain fundamental policy problems. Without that clarity of goals, the policy debate in Washington will remain impressionistic, and clashes of favorite policy hobby horses falling under general labels like "counterinsurgency," "nation building," or "counterterrorism," or catch phrases like "let's go lighter but longer," which only serve to distract from actually defining what America needs to achieve to say it is done. Ten years into the Afghanistan war, the Lewis Carroll quote -- "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there," still applies. And that remains the biggest danger for U.S. policy in Afghanistan today.
Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.