Afghanistan. The name in itself is enough to send Obama administration officials under their desks in fear. And who can blame them? The war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan could have been won in December of 2001.
Osama bin Laden and his compatriots were on the run in the mountains of Tora Bora. Instead of sending in American troops to finish the job and strike a decisive blow to the terrorist organization, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld opted to outsource the task to Afghan warlords. Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri escaped to Pakistan, where by all accounts they remain to this day.
Compounding the error, the Bush administration drastically underfunded the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, turning their attention, money and manpower to an unnecessary, self-destructive adventure in Iraq. More than seven years after the US first invaded Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks, the effort is spiraling downwards. Afghans are tiring of the Western presence and are fed up with their inability to provide security from the Taliban.
Enter Barack Obama. On the campaign trail, Obama repeated that as president he would increase the number of US troops in Afghanistan, even as he wound down the war in Iraq. Obama's position allowed him to state his opposition against the Iraq War without seeming too dovish to the American public.
The new president has made good on his pledge. On February 17th, he approved the dispatch of 17,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan, where they will join the 30,000 already in the region. The new troops are heading to the south of the country, overwhelmingly the most dangerous part.
At the same time, the administration has hinted that it sees Afghanistan as unwinnable. Obama has suggested that keeping al-Qaeda at bay, not transforming Afghanistan into a democracy, is the US priority in the country; and talking with the Taliban is now an option, according to the Washington Post.
All of Obama's ideas are sensible. Lowering expectations of what the West can achieve-or what it needs to achieve-is necessary in Afghanistan. Sending more troops gives the administration some breathing room while it forms a new policy.
However, Obama could yet ask European nations for more troops in order to give international legitimacy to the effort, and to relieve the burden on the US. On his European trip, Vice-President Joe Biden said that "America will do more, but America will ask more from our partners" as well. It would be wise to take him at his word.
Should European countries provide troops? Firstly, they should make clear that negotiating with the Taliban and ending the war is their highest priority. If the US intends to stay in Afghanistan for years, then it will have to do so alone. But, if Obama can use European troops as way to negotiate the end of the war from a position of strength, then those nations called upon should step up.
The only question is if Obama has the courage and the skill to tell Americans the truth-that transforming Afghanistan into a liberal democracy is impossible and leaving sooner rather than later is the best strategy going forward.
Jordan Michael Smith is a Press Officer at the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) in Washington, DC. His views are not necessarily representative of PNSR's.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Yasser Abumuailek: NATO to Lead the War on Terror
- Stefanie Babst: NATO's New Public Diplomacy: The Art of Engaging and Influencing
- Andreas Umland: NATO-Russia War: A Possible Scenario