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Why Are We in Afghanistan?

5 years ago
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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
Even before Gen. Stanley McChrystal's war assessment landed in Washington, the capital was in a frenzy over what to do about Afghanistan. But publication of the 66-page (redacted) document this week by the Washington Post has whipped the frenzy into near-hysteria, with a stampede of politicians and talking heads shouting in effect that "Something must be done!'' and predicting dire consequences if something isn't.

Perhaps that's understandable, given the commander's grim assessment of how the war inside Afghanistan is going: The enemy is gaining, the current strategy is failing, the United States could lose the war without more resources. Not just that, but the U.S. and its allies must change their entire war-fighting culture "profoundly.''

Oddly, though, the McChrystal memo doesn't raise or answer this question: Why are we doing this? It's the nagging question that has pestered the United States during the almost eight years since U.S. forces demolished al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and chased the Taliban off to Pakistan in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks. It is the reason, after that first satisfying retaliatory strike, no one has had much enthusiasm for prosecuting a long, difficult and costly war in Afghanistan, except that it seemed somehow more moral than the mess in Iraq.

Having just returned from six weeks in Afghanistan documenting the earnest and hard (and dangerous) work that Americans are doing there, I had hoped that someone, among all the smart people in the White House and the Pentagon and the State Department and even Congress, would straighten this mess out and state clearly and plainly, why, exactly, we are in Afghanistan.

No such luck, at least not so far.

The problem erupts in the very first sentence of the McChrystal report, in which he describes the mission upon which President Obama has directed him: "to disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat al Qaeda and prevent their return to Afghanistan.'' McChrystal goes on to describe his mission as preventing the fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban.

To oversimplify: Obama has directed McChrystal to go after al-Qaeda, which is in Pakistan. McChrystal is going after the Taliban, which is in Afghanistan.

I eagerly pored through McChrystal's lengthy report hoping to find a direct and compelling connection. Unless there is more hidden away in a secret annex, here's what I found:

"Afghanistan's insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan'' with fighters, guns, training and money. One of the minor insurgent groups, the Haqqani network (HQN), has growing ties to al-Qaeda, "suggesting that expanded HQN control could create a favorable environment for [al-Qaeda] to re-establish safe havens in Afghanistan.''

The Haqqani gang is active only in eastern Afghanistan, where I recently spent several weeks. They are largely holed up in the high, barren mountains of Khowst, Paktiya and Paktika provinces, which are actually rated by the U.S. command as relatively safe. Haqqani's guys are nasty criminal types and strongly disliked by the Afghans I spoke with there, but they are ruthless and good at intimidation. I didn't run into anyone who rated them as a direct threat to the United States, though. Oh, and they are funded principally from the Gulf Arab states, McChrystal notes.

Still looking for a reason for the United States to be fighting in Afghanistan, I read on: "Stability in Pakistan is essential, not only in its own right, but also to enable progress in Afghanistan,'' McChrystal reports. "Nevertheless, the insurgency in Afghanistan is predominantly Afghan.''

I stopped and reread: "the insurgency in Afghanistan is predominantly Afghan.''

If the goal here, as outlined by the president last March, is to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future,'' then I remain puzzled, and concerned. Why are we fighting in Afghanistan?

And it's not just me, apparently. The Washington Post reports this morning that McChrystal's report has opened a "rupture'' between the military, which is anxious for troop reinforcements, and civilian policymakers "increasingly doubtful of an escalating nation-building effort.'' That sounds suspiciously like strategic wandering, ideas in search of purpose.

On the front lines in Afghanistan, I met a lot of smart, hard-working and immensely likeable young Americans, like these paratroopers, who have it on faith that "higher'' (authorities far above them) know what they are doing, and why. I hope that very soon, "higher'' will be able to explain the "why'' to them, and to us.

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