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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Where do we go from here?

The debate on the U.S. war in Afghanistan lacks clarity and focus.

Ryan Crocker, President Barack Obama's choice to become ambassador to Afghanistan, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination. Photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the incoming ambassador to Kabul, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday. It was remarkable: Senators of both parties asked him probing questions about the strategy and conduct of the war and Crocker, who reopened the U.S. embassy in Kabul in 2002 and has served as ambassador to Iraq and Pakistan, uttered vague promises to curb corruption and repeated the Obama administration’s commitment to the war, but said very little of substance.

From Crocker, a consummate diplomat, one should expect a certain amount of evasive language and graceful sidestepping. But Crocker was not really avoiding a hard discussion about the war’s objectives and strategy; rather, he could not discuss the war in detail because the Obama administration and its supporters have not articulated what their vision for the country is.

Michael O’Hanlon, one of the most vociferous supporters of the current policy, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post last week arguing that the success we’ve seen in Afghanistan is “worth paying for.” However, even there, where he is declaring the war on the “right track” and that withdrawal has terrible consequences, there is no mention of where that “track” is heading toward. Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, who are similarly vocal in their support for the war, fall prey to the same trap: dire, unfathomable consequences for withdrawing troops, but a muddled and unclear idea of what victory or success actually look like. What do we want Afghanistan to look like in five years? No one supporting the war seems able to say.

The anti-war side is also weakened by a lack of strategic vision. Arguments over the war’s cost, which have recently dominated Congress, are completely disconnected from whatever strategic interests are at stake in Afghanistan. If the U.S. has a vital national security interest in Afghanistan, which is what O’Hanlon and the Kagans argue, then the cost argument is almost immaterial. The debate over troop numbers, too, is disconnected from any strategic considerations: If we need to be in Afghanistan to achieve a goal, then we need to determine what level of commitment in terms of troops is necessary to achieve it. Sadly, both sides neglect to talk about end games in their debates over troop numbers and war cost.

It is so hard to talk about the end state in Afghanistan because it’s hard to say why we are still there. The original goal of removing the Taliban from power and preventing al Qaeda from launching another attack on our homeland was achieved in 2002. Since then the goal has shifted shape and become indefinable: the creation of a state with “good-enough governance,” in the words of Ambassador Crocker, with a military that can defend itself and prevent the reemergence of al Qaeda sanctuaries in the country. In many ways, it is a strategy that has failed to define itself affirmatively. Rather, it is one defined by the absence of corruption, the absence of al Qaeda. It is not a strategy for anything, which makes it confusing.

It is unclear how we are meant to achieve this strategic negation. The Obama administration has vacillated on whether it wants to defeat the Taliban or negotiate an end to the worst of the fighting with them. For years, the civilian and military personnel who serve at the highest levels have insisted the war cannot be won militarily, yet we spend 97 percent of our resources on the military mission. We can be forgiven for being confused about what we’re trying to do.

At its heart, the war in Afghanistan is a political struggle over the future of the country: between the government and the Taliban, between the Taliban and the rest of the insurgency, and between different factions within the government — especially as a new anti-reconciliation movement, the Besij-i Melli, gains traction in the non-Pashtun areas of the country’s north and west.

Each one of these political fights has the potential to undo any sort of “fragile yet reversible progress” the pro-war camp enjoys touting as evidence of our impending victory. But they also have the potential to spiral out of control should the anti-war side succeed in pushing through an arbitrary withdrawal of troops or money without a view toward the end-state of the war.

The war in Afghanistan will only be resolved politically: some sort of political reconciliation process that addresses enough of the motivating factors driving the insurgency without impugning on enough of the government’s and international community’s concerns. The real debate which should be taking place is what sort of end-state we would consider good enough. It requires answering truly difficult questions: Will we allow the Taliban to participate openly in Afghanistan’s political system if they agree to forever dissociate themselves from al Qaeda? If one were to go by President Obama’s latest statement on the war, that should be “yes.” But it isn’t. There is confusion about the war’s end-state, so we do not know what we are even trying to progress toward.

In the meanwhile, even the tough questions lobbed at Ambassador Crocker yesterday miss the point: focusing on corruption and the military progress against the Taliban is focusing on the symptoms rather than the root problem. No one in power seems particularly interested in a long-term, outcome-oriented view of the war in Afghanistan. It is why we are stuck with just more of the same — an endless quibbling over arbitrary numbers of troops and funding packages – when we should be asking a far more basic question of why we are still in Afghanistan.