The Debate over the War in Afghanistan

Mike Brownfield, Heritage Foundation

The killing of Osama bin Laden was a hard-won victory for the United States, but the gains made in pursuit of that day of justice and in waging the war in Afghanistan–including putting al-Qaeda on its heels–could be squandered if the Obama Administration continues its plotted course. When Republican presidential candidates lay out their foreign policy agendas in next Tuesday’s debate hosted by The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute on CNN, they should pay significant attention to this seminal war that is so crucial to America’s struggle against terrorism.

In June, President Barack Obama announced his decision to bring home 10,000 troops by the end of this year and a total of 33,000 troops by next summer–despite requests from the Pentagon and General David Petraeus to limit the initial withdrawal to 3,000 to 4,000, as the Los Angeles Times reported. That decision, as The Washington Post wrote, wasn’t based in a “convincing military or strategic rationale.” Rather, it was “at odds with the strategy adopted by NATO, which aims to turn over the war to the Afghan army by the end of 2014.”

At the time, Heritage’s Lisa Curtis wrote that, apart from denying his military commanders flexibility to determine the pace and scope of withdrawal based on conditions on the ground, the President “also risks upending the major achievement of eliminating Osama bin Laden across the border in Pakistan.” Curtis also noted that the decision would “further discourage Pakistan from cracking down on the Taliban leadership that finds sanctuary on its soil” and “reinforce Islamabad’s calculation that the U.S. is losing resolve in the fight in Afghanistan and thus encourage Pakistani military leaders to continue to hedge on support to the Taliban to protect their own national security interests.”

Unfortunately, after the President’s decision, the United States reaped a bitter harvest sown by the Pakistani government. On September 13, the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, was attacked, and reports revealed that those responsible were linked to Pakistani intelligence officials. Then, in testimony before Congress, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that Pakistan’s military intelligence service is directing the Haqqani network, a militant group responsible for attacks on Americans, including the assault on the embassy.

Sadly, Pakistan’s support of insurgent groups in Afghanistan is the most significant obstacle to achieving stability in the country, and refusal by the Pakistani military to take action against the Haqqani network seriously undermines U.S. and NATO success in the Afghan mission. And that mission is critical to the United States’ continued prosecution of the war against terrorists. Heritage’s James Carafano and Jessica Zuckerman explain why that war is central to America’s global response to terrorism:

Al-Qaeda’s core leadership remains in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and the Taliban (whose leadership is allied with al-Qaeda) continues to threaten stability in Afghanistan. In order to stop terrorism at its source, the U.S. must remain committed to its counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which aims to prevent the Taliban from regaining influence in the region.

There are steps that the White House should take to ensure success in Afghanistan, and they revolve around dealing with the main obstacle to progress: Pakistan. First and foremost, the U.S. should reverse its withdrawal plan in order to show Pakistan that America is not turning its back on the region and to ensure that there is no void that the Taliban can once again fill.

Next, since half of all supply routes to the NATO mission go through Pakistan, the U.S. should develop additional supply routes into Afghanistan. In response to the attack on the U.S. embassy, the U.S. should freeze aid until Pakistan takes actions against perpetrators of the attack and helps shut down the Haqqani network, designate the Haqqani network a foreign terrorist organization, establish a congressional commission to investigate Pakistan’s role in fomenting the insurgency in Afghanistan and the extent to which its actions are preventing the U.S. and NATO from achieving their security objectives in the region, and pursue an aggressive drone campaign against the Haqqani network.

There is much at stake in the war in Afghanistan, and Americans–particularly the brave men and women in uniform–have already made tremendous sacrifices. But their sacrifices should not be rendered meaningless for the sake of scoring political victories at home. The United States has made significant strides in the war against terrorism, but the President–and those who seek the White House–must realize that unless the U.S. changes course, America will slide backward in its mission to secure itself against those who would do us harm.


Mike Brownfield oversees execution of The Heritage Foundation’s social networking strategy and online media outreach as the think tank’s senior digital communications associate.


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