Can the Right War Be Won?

Defining American Interests in Afghanistan

The Obama administration recently completed its 60-day review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the president, "The core goal of the U.S. must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan." The United States will pursue this goal, he explained, by carrying out five tasks: disrupting terrorist networks that are capable of launching international attacks; "promoting a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan"; building up Afghan security forces that are "increasingly self reliant"; nudging Pakistan toward greater civilian control and "a stable constitutional government"; and getting the international community to help achieve these objectives under UN auspices. The premise of the strategy is that the turbulence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, if untamed, will lead to a nuclear 9/11.

In some ways, the new administration's goals are more modest than those of its predecessor. As President George W. Bush described the U.S. goal, "We have a strategic interest and I believe a moral interest in a prosperous and peaceful democratic Afghanistan, and no matter how long it takes, we will help the people of Afghanistan succeed." President Barack Obama has dismissed this objective as unrealistic, stating that the United States was not going to "rebuild Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy."

In practical terms, however, the Obama commitment is bigger. Whereas the Bush administration put a ceiling on troop deployments to Afghanistan (albeit largely because of Iraq), Obama ordered the deployment of an additional 21,000 troops. General David McKiernan -- who in May was replaced by General Stanley McChrystal as U.S. commander in Afghanistan -- had asked for 10,000 more; the White House will decide whether to add those in the fall. By the middle of 2010, the U.S. troop presence will have expanded by nearly one-third, to 78,000. Adding NATO troops, including those slated for deployment through the August Afghan elections, would boost the total coalition troop level to approximately 100,000.

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