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Tuesday, May 17, 2011, 5:53 am

The Endless Search for ‘Success’ In Afghanistan

By David Szydloski

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Following the death of Osama bin Laden, there has been increased political pressure to “end the war in Afghanistan.”

Currently, the administration has set a goal of beginning troop withdrawals in July 2011, as President Obama outlined in his 2009 speech to cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The date was apparently the result of optimism and political calculation—bring some American troops home at the beginning of the 2012 election season and, perhaps, show independent voters his foreign policy acumen. Any president who could bring the troops home and end the war would reap major political windfalls.

The exact size of the drawdown has always been unclear. Only two months ago, Secretary Gates warned leaders of NATO countries that significant drawdowns would impede coalition goals. He also downplayed the potential drawdown of U.S. forces, saying that it was likely only 2,000 troops would be removed by July. The message was clear: the United States still believed there was a need to maintain a large ground force in Afghanistan to ensure a successful end to the NATO, and in particular the U.S., mission in Afghanistan.

Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing titled “Steps Needed For a Successful 2014 Transition in Afghanistan,” which concerned the drawdown and what an eventual successful exit from Afghanistan would look like.

The original definition of success in Afghanistan, formally established in the 2001 Bonn Agreement, was to bring down the Taliban and help the government of the new Islamic Republic of Afghanistan build its civil and security infrastructure. (It’s important to remember, this hopeful document was drafted prior to our experiments in regime change in Iraq.)

The conditions for success offered by the three experts who testified at the May 10 hearing were a pared-down version of the Bonn Agreement goals. When pressed by Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) about a goal all three experts could agree on, they agreed with the “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda” goal established by the Obama White House, while adding that it would still be necessary to have a sizable troop presence in Afghanistan to continue to help Afghan security forces.

Even Dr. Seth Jones, senior political scientist for the RAND Corporation, who argued for a “lean and lethal” approach to counter-terrorism focusing on using Special Forces and CIA agents to do targeted killings and limited engagement, indicated that his approach would necessitate a military presence of at least 30,000 troops after 2014 “depending on ground conditions and other factors.”

The political importance of "success" in Afghanistan (and any war) cannot be overstated. The Bush Administration bet the house on its two wars, which ended up pulling down both his approval ratings and his party’s image. Obama has clearly picked up where Bush left off while at the same time upping the ante by involving U.S. forces in Libya—all the while receiving support from people who would malign the same actions if undertaken by Bush.

In the end, every war has to be justified to the citizens who bear the physical, emotional and monetary costs of the war. When it comes to Afghanistan, the only consistent justification offered to the American people has been a self-justification: The war is necessary and America will not be safe unless our troops are in Afghanistan. Even the memory of bin Laden is still being used as a scare tactic to continue and maintain the security state established during the Bush Administration by Democrats and Republicans.

A reckoning of the true justifications and costs of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq can only come if it is demanded by the American people—our political class has too much invested in its wars.
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