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Why Are We in Afghanistan?

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Posted on Dec 25, 2013
The U.S. Army (CC BY 2.0)

American and British soldiers in the Sangin District area of Helmand Province.

By Stanley Kutler

(Page 2)

We particularly have looked to presidents in the post-1945 world to guide us to a recognition of our national interests. But with Obama, it seems we are on a fruitless, barren quest. In 2008, candidate Obama opposed the Iraq War. Why is difficult to determine other than the war had been initiated by a Republican president and no longer was popular—indeed, it belonged to Obama’s category of dumb wars. But Afghanistan clearly was another matter. Then he promised to pursue Osama bin Laden to the ends of Tora Bora. As it happens, in May 2011 we announced we had captured and killed him—not in the wilds of Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, our steadfast ally. Still we remain in Afghanistan.

Obama’s 2008 campaign advisers Susan Rice and Samantha Power persuaded him to expand the war in Afghanistan. After all, it was smart domestic and campaign politics, for Obama could demonstrate that Democrats could also play the national security card.

President Obama is now captive to Karzai and the American military, and he is saddled with an increasingly unpopular, intractable war. To reverse that course, he undoubtedly would clash with American military leaders. When he had the opportunity, and when it was right to begin our disengagement, the president instead raised our stake, fearful both of letting Karzai fail and of rejecting the adventurism of his military people.

For weeks now, Karzai has been in the “final” stages of negotiating a proposed Status of Forces Agreement to cover the retention of American troops in Afghanistan—until when remains indeterminate. Along the way, he demanded an “apology” from Obama for invading and destroying the houses of Afghan citizens. Some gall. Sadly, the Obama administration in no way publicly rebuked him, allowing his outrageous remark to stand. 


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In the latest iteration of the agreement, Karzai apparently received what he wanted, perhaps only for his internal cover purposes. He posted on his website a letter from Obama stating, “U.S. forces shall not enter Afghan homes for the purposes of military operations, except under extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk to life and limb of U.S. nationals.” In these times, we have come to know the plasticity of “extraordinary circumstances.”

Karzai continues to string out his own comic opera, alternating between acceptance of the agreement and promises to defer it. Obama’s choice is clear: He can continue to tolerate Karzai’s childlike petulance, or he can reprise his Iraq maneuver in which our clients there balked at granting extraterritorial rights for American military personnel and Obama promptly withdrew our troops. Iraq was already racked by civil unrest, and this time Obama wisely decided to avoid the “harm’s way.” Ironically, Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari now has urged Karzai to accept the agreement.

The proposed Status of Forces Agreement is beside the point. So cui bono, who benefits from another decade of commitment in Afghanistan and even “beyond,” as the agreement’s American drafters have said? Where is the threat to American national security and national interest that we must stay in Afghanistan? Will the Russians return for another try; is there some sinister Chinese design out there? Admittedly, the Taliban certainly are an affront to modern civilization, but that is no excuse for us to almost single-handedly try to change their behavior. Obama and his advisers have the primary task to define and assert the American national interest. Afghanistan is not the place. What have we gained after more than 12 years?

The usually decisive will of the American military believes otherwise. Gen. Allen has praised the prospects for more involvement. The forthcoming agreement, he said, “acknowledges that we as a people and the Afghan people are bound together in a common future.” Is this some new definition of globalism?

So, here we are more than five years after Obama declared Afghanistan a proper place to assert American power, stuck in the quagmire, with little prospect of extricating ourselves and making progress only because we declare it so. Meanwhile, we still have Karzai, and the president’s advisers remain in place, unlikely to change their minds. 

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