Counterpoint: Pomeranz advocates staying the course

Allison Lazarus

by Cody Pomeranz ’11, Sports Section Editor

On September 11, 2001, America was attacked, 3,000 innocent civilians were brutally murdered, and a nation was left with a sense of insecurity and a myriad of questions without answers.  Today’s landscape has certainly changed.  After eight years of fighting, six of which involved two separate wars, Americans have grown weary of warfare.  The fervor for revenge that enveloped the country following the attacks of September 11 has been assuaged by a growing feeling that the United States is not winning in Afghanistan, and that the war has clouded America’s ability to handle other, more pressing international issues.  The feeling is understandable, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

Critics have deemed Afghanistan a losing effort, with no prospect of winning.  Opponents to a troop surge have evoked Vietnam and Soviet occupation analogies to further advance their point that Afghanistan is hopeless.  Many have gone so far as to claim global terrorist networking as a minor threat.  To them I simply reply, “Tell that to the three thousand gravestones.”  It was the underestimation of the threat of al-Qaeda that resulted in 9/11. Terrorism is the most potent threat the world faces today.  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, America ignored security and grew arrogant of its world domination.  This would all change following 9/11.  However, many call for the evacuation of Afghanistan, where the attacks of 9/11 were planned.  These critics do not understand that evacuating now is more pernicious to the country’s security than staying in Afghanistan.

President Obama understands this, and despite his party’s opposition, has taken commendable action in maintaining the country’s security.  That being said, Obama has done the right thing in all the wrong ways.  Last Tuesday, on December 1, the president announced his decision to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to the region.  Despite General McChrystal’s request for 40,000, the president trimmed the number, awaiting an additional 7,000 from NATO.  However, I have to say that I was disappointed in the speech.  Obama glossed over the subject of Pakistan, which, as he notes, “is inextricably linked to success in Afghanistan,” failed to mention changes in opium policy (the trade by which the Taliban, and consequently al-Qaeda, is funded), and worst of all, set an incredibly small timetable to reach the necessary objectives, a provision which Obama’s national security team is quickly backtracking on.  The timetable was a political move that will eventually backfire on him. If Obama was trying to convince Americans that this war is worth fighting, he didn’t succeed.  America’s security is inextricably linked with success in Afghanistan.  Americans need to understand this.

Though pundits loosely use the word “victory” when judging Afghanistan, one must first define it.  The objective in Afghanistan is no longer what it was eight years ago. On October 7, 2001, just under a month after 9/11, U.S. forces launched Operation Enduring Freedom.  An internationally supported invasion, Operation Enduring Freedom had the objective of finding Osama bin Laden, destroying al-Qaeda, and removing the terrorist-harboring Taliban regime in Afghanistan.  The cause was certainly a noble one, and the U.S. Army made great progress in their mission.  Within seven weeks, U.S. forces dismantled and displaced the Taliban. But the president at the time would make arguably the greatest military mistake in the past century:  President Bush took his eye off Afghanistan, denying resources and troops (thus allowing the Taliban to regroup and al-Qaeda to flee), and invaded Iraq.  Al-Qaeda is no longer operating in Afghanistan and hasn’t been for sometime. Insurgents are currently ensconced along the mountainous border in the FATA.  Now, the objective is to stifle Taliban insurgency in southern areas, primarily the Helmand and Kandahar provinces, train Afghan police and military forces, and set up a stable, working government.  If U.S. and NATO can achieve their goals, they will have eliminated al-Qaeda’s primary safe haven and prevented further Taliban insurgency.

Vice President Joe Biden and myriad others have posed the question, “If al-Qaeda isn’t there, why are we?” The simple answer: to strengthen the region enough to sufficiently counter al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgency when we leave.  Afghanistan is like a chess game.  Our king is Afghanistan.  In order to prevent enemy attack, we must fortify defenses around our king with pawns, bishops, and knights.  These pieces are the Afghan security forces we continue to train, and they will take the burden once we leave.  However, there is a major hole in the equation here.  How do you attack al-Qaeda if they’re in Pakistan?  And therein lies the quagmire.  Pakistan’s instability is far and away the most dangerous threat to the world.  While former President Bush rerouted U.S. forces to find non-existent WMD in Iraq, al-Qaeda moved closer and closer to Pakistan’s very real, and very dangerous Weapons of Mass Destruction.  However, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is semi-permeable.  Al-Qaeda militia can flee across it, but Western forces, which respect Pakistan’s sovereignty, cannot.  Pakistan would never allow a U.S. invasion; at least not unless there was another 9/11 hatched in the country.  The U.S. has tried to counter this with Predator strikes.  Unfortunately, drone attacks can only do so much.  They have indeed successfully killed several high ranking al-Qaeda officials.  But at the same time, the strikes have forced insurgents to delve further into Pakistan, consequently destabilizing the region even more.  There is good news and bad news in this situation.  The good news: Pakistan has launched a large offensive against insurgency on their borders.  The bad news:  Pakistan has only focused on the indigenous Pakistan Taliban, effectively permitting sanctuaries for the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda.  The primary reason for this, though not admitted by Pakistan of course, is that Pakistan sees a strong Afghanistan as an Indian ally, and thus views the destabilizing force of the Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgency as beneficial to national interest.  The naiveté in this assumption is almost comical, considering that it is this insurgency that has directly threatened to overthrow the government.  Nevertheless, the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda have found sympathy within the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence. The problem:  Pakistan is convinced that the biggest threat to their security is India, largely ignoring the true threat on their western border, not to mention the fact that the Pakistani army has been ill prepared for this warfare.  Until the U.S. can convince Pakistan that they share a common enemy, and that America is not merely using the nation as a buffer state for national interest, but a strong ally for a united fight, progress will remain idle.  The U.S., however, is forced to continue its economic and military aid to Pakistan if it hopes of any chance to stabilize a region where popularity for America is minimal and support for domestic militia groups is rising.  For, if Pakistan falls, the world will face a threat more dangerous than any before.  This newer dimension of the war has made Pakistan the epicenter of global terrorism, and consequently, the epicenter of this fight.

In the end, it is clear that America’s security is at stake in the region, and that more forces are required.  However, to reiterate, President Obama has approached this conflict in all the wrong ways.  Though Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, has vowed to change the U.S. opium policy in the region, drug trade persists.  Even Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s brother is one of the leading drug traffickers in the region, making the corruption in the government patently evident. Instead of declaring an end to the war, Obama needs to affirm America’s commitment to the fight.  The most dangerous weapon in the insurgency’s arsenal is patience.  Understandably, Americans do not desire an open-ended war.  However, I’m afraid true success in Afghanistan and Pakistan requires a long-term commitment.  Giving an unexpectedly short timetable to the war, as the president did, is simply irresponsible.  But, of course, a long commitment needs to be accompanied by shrewd policy.  Instead of perfecting Afghanistan, America needs to stabilize it.  From the start, American policy-makers envisioned a flourishing democracy in Afghanistan.  But the vision is simply irrational in the third poorest country in the world.  Instead of imposing what is essentially an illiberal democracy on Afghanistan, the U.S. needs to promote stability and security, which requires both civilian and military aid long-term.  No matter what the president calls it, America’s strategy is nation building.

The bottom line is that Pakistan’s, Afghanistan’s, and America’s interests are mutual.  And despite notions that Afghanistan will be Obama’s waterloo, leaving the region now would be a huge mistake.  If U.S. forces leave without constructing an adequate, stable Afghan government, police and military force, and civilian condition, insurgency will persist, al-Qaeda will flood back into the area and plan attacks like those of 9/11 with impunity, and the destabilization of Pakistan will lead to nuclear disaster.  But as the president moves forward, he needs to act judiciously.  If there is one thing he can learn from his predecessor, it’s that caprice can engender catastrophe and bring about the downfall of a presidency.  Pragmatism is Obama’s most admirable attribute, and it is certainly necessary.  For, the politics of this war is essentially like the war itself: a minefield, where one wrong step and everything goes boom.  To win this war, America has to fundamentally change the ways of two countries, both the governments and the peoples.  This is a tall order, but not one that presages failure.  The complexity of this issue should not deter commitment to the cause.  American forces are needed now more than ever to allow Afghanistan to stand on its two feet.   And Afghanistan’s stability, as well as Pakistan’s cooperation, is crucial to maintaining America’s and the world’s security.  In the words of Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “this isn’t about can do anymore.  This is about must do.”