Speaking last week to the US Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Barack Obama could not have been more definitive. “We must never forget,” he said of the conflict in Afghanistan. “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.”
Earlier this year, Obama decided to send an additional 17,000 combat soldiers to Afghanistan, raising US force levels there to at least 60,000. And in March he articulated a broader mission: The US would now “take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east”, in effect making the US a full party to Afghanistan’s civil war.
But is Afghanistan a war of necessity? And if not—if in fact it is a war of choice—so what?
Wars of necessity must meet two tests. They involve, first, vital national interests, and second, a lack of viable alternatives to the use of military force to protect those interests. In the wake of 9/11, invading Afghanistan was a war of necessity. The US needed to act in self-defence to oust the Taliban. Now, however, with a friendly government in Kabul, is US military presence still a necessity?
US interests in Afghanistan include making it difficult for Al Qaeda to mount operations from that country and limiting Taliban use of Afghan territory to destabilize Pakistan. Minimizing the chance of a terrorist attack on American citizens is vital, as is making sure that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
But even if the US were to succeed in Afghanistan—with “success” defined as bringing into existence an Afghan government strong enough to control most of its territory—terrorists could still operate from there. And Pakistan’s future would remain uncertain at best.
Moreover, there are alternatives to current American policy. One would reduce ground-combat operations and emphasize drone attacks on terrorists, the training of Afghan police officers and soldiers, development aid and diplomacy to fracture the Taliban.
A more radical alternative would withdraw all US military forces from Afghanistan and centre on regional and global counterterrorism efforts. Under this option, US policy towards Afghanistan would resemble the approach towards Somalia and other countries where governments are unable or unwilling to take on terrorists and the US eschews military intervention.
Afghanistan is thus a war of choice—Obama’s war of choice. Wars of choice are not inherently good or bad. It depends on whether military involvement would accomplish more than it would cost.
Making this assessment in Afghanistan is difficult. The Taliban are resourceful and patient and can use Pakistan as a sanctuary. It is not obvious that Afghans can overcome ethnic loyalties, corruption and personal rivalries. No matter who is declared the winner, last week’s election is almost certain to leave the country even more divided.
The risk of ending US military effort in Afghanistan is that Kabul could be overrun and the government might fall. The risk of the current approach is that it might produce the same result in the end, but at a higher human, military and economic cost.
All of which makes Afghanistan not just a war of choice, but a tough choice. My judgement is that American interests are sufficiently important, prospects for achieving limited success are sufficiently high and the risks of alternative policies are sufficiently great to proceed, for now, with Obama’s measured strategy. But the administration, Congress and the American people (who, recent polls suggest, are turning against the war) must undertake regular, rigorous assessments of whether these efforts are bearing fruit or are likely to.
If Afghanistan were a war of necessity, it would justify any level of effort. It is not and does not. And no one should forget that doing more in Afghanistan lessens US ability to act elsewhere, including North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Edited excerpts. Richard N. Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations . Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org