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How Washington Sees Afghanistan

President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai and US President Barack Obama hold a news conference
At a debate Thursday among analysts and advocates on whether the U.S. should remain in Afghanistan past 2014, when the NATO combat mission there is scheduled to end, the four panelists differed mostly on the degree of U.S. presence that would be required past that date. None advocated for a full withdrawal.

Frederick W. Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute and a prominent civilian adviser to the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, argued that the U.S. should remain in Afghanistan because “there continue to be people in Afghanistan . . . who wake up every morning and ask themselves, ‘How can I kill Americans and how can I bring this war to the United States?’”

He said that the American public’s war-weariness, which creates pressure for withdrawal, was not a sound basis for policymaking, especially since most Americans have no direct experience of the war.

“The American people as a people have no right whatsoever to feel war-weariness unless by that is meant the weariness of reading and watching other people fight this war, because the overwhelming majority of American people have not fundamentally been involved in this war,” he said. “We may be weary of this war, but this war is not weary of us, and the war doesn’t end just because we decide we don’t feel like playing anymore.”

Steve Clemons, Washington editor and editor at large for The Atlantic, emphasized the risks of a U.S. withdrawal, given wider regional threats, the spread of al-Qaida and the possibility of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. “America can’t afford a Whac-A-Mole strategy in dealing with threats,” Clemons said.

Clemons also noted that a withdrawal might make the U.S. appear weak to rivals such as China and Iran. But he said the U.S. needed a better strategy for its continued presence in Afghanistan.

“I worry about sending American men and women into a place where we look mired down and stuck as opposed to leveraging U.S. power,” he said, describing the risk of the U.S. coming across as overstretched. “I think it is almost criminal to leave these people there [when] we do not have a strategy today for dealing with the broad, changing parameters in that region.”

Seth G. Jones, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND, echoed the theme of withdrawal’s risks, saying that “as long as there are threats to the U.S. homeland coming from the region, we can not leave entirely.” Jones was presented as a proponent of a decreased U.S. presence in Afghanistan, but like the rest of the panelists argued against a full withdrawal, saying it would be “counterproductive to U.S. national security period exclamation point.”

In his view, the most significant event in Afghanistan over the next year will not be ongoing fighting, but rather the upcoming elections.

“Much will hinge on what happens over the next 12 months, who gets elected, what sort of representation we have, what sort of support we have among Afghans,” he said.

“Watch this election process,” he continued. “It is very important for the future of this country.”

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, made a humanitarian rather than security-based argument for a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan, focusing on the Afghan people and preventing a Taliban takeover.

Roth said that the U.S. has not set real conditions for the future of the next Afghan government, nor forged a political strategy that would give Afghanistan a greater chance of success. He said the U.S. military would have to be a part of such a strategy, but that a military strategy alone would not work and could in fact be counterproductive.

He said that as the ongoing U.S. military drawdown continues, the U.S. will be able to “reorient the way” it engages with the Afghan government once it is not as preoccupied with force protection and “embarrassed by defeats.”

Kurt Volcker, the executive director of the McCain Institute, which hosted the debate, concluded the discussion by arguing for a better strategy.

“We can’t drift passively along and hope it’s going to be okay,” he said, explaining that whatever the U.S. decision on its future engagement with Afghanistan, the consequences will be serious. As a consequence, he said, “we have to be serious about a strategy.”

Catherine Cheney is World Politics Review’s Trend Lines Reporter.

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