The war to overthrow the Taliban's government in Afghanistan seemed over almost before it began in late 2001, but the war to push the Taliban out of the country—and keep it out—has been going on ever since, with no end in sight.

No U.S. official is willing to predict just how long it might take to win in Afghanistan, or even to say exactly what would count as winning. The vague and lofty political rhetoric of the Bush administration has been replaced with a slightly more modest but no less vague set of strategic imperatives. Gone are promises to install American democracy and freedom in Afghanistan; President Barack Obama prefers to talk instead about insuring the country's security and stability. But it remains an open question how much our own national security depends on political stability in Afghanistan, a country that has been unstable for much of its history.

The president has long insisted that Afghanistan, and not Iraq, is the main front in the war against Al Qaeda. For this reason, he has ordered 21,000 additional troops to be sent to Afghanistan by year's end, bringing the total number of U.S. soldiers there to 68,000. There are reports that he may soon consider sending even more troops if Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, says they're needed.

That would be OK with most Republicans, but some in the president's own party are beginning to express doubts. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, wants the U.S. military to concentrate its resources on training Afghanistan's own security forces before the president agrees to send more combat troops. Levin says we should plan to train 250,000 Afghan soldiers and 160,000 police officers by 2012. Even this massive undertaking, however, might not be enough. A recent U.S. intelligence estimate claimed it would take 325,000 Afghan soldiers to provide security for the whole country.

To train and equip an army of that size would require several years and many billions of dollars. It would also require the cooperation of the weak and unreliable government of President Hamid Karzai, whose reputation was not helped by the disputed outcome of last month's presidential election. For now, and for a while to come, the main burden of the counterinsurgency will still fall to the American-led coalition forces. The longer those forces stay—and the larger they get—the more they look like occupiers rather than liberators. Many Afghans who were at first glad to be rid of the Taliban government have since decided they would rather be bullied by homegrown zealots than see their country forever patrolled by foreigners.

More U.S. soldiers died in August than in any other month since the war began. More have died in 2009 than in any other year. The spike in casualties is partly the result of a welcome change in tactics—in order to protect innocent Afghan civilians, the military is using fewer airstrikes and more ground troops—but it also reflects the growing strength and technical sophistication of the Taliban.

It was not the Taliban that brought us to Afghanistan in the first place, of course; it was Al Qaeda, which decamped to western Pakistan not long after the bombs started falling. There is no plan for U.S. ground forces to follow them there, or to any of the other countries where they might be offered refuge. So why are we stuck in Afghanistan—to save lives or to save face?

President Obama has argued that, while the war in Iraq was one of choice, the war in Afghanistan is one of necessity, and few of our elected leaders have disagreed. In the same speech in which he opposed increasing the number of combat troops, Carl Levin spoke of “our commitment to the success of a mission that is clearly in our national security interests.” Alas, nothing about the mission in Afghanistan is clear, least of all its connection to American security. All wars, including necessary wars, involve difficult choices. If President Obama chooses to keep us in Afghanistan, he must do a better job of explaining his reasons and expectations to the American people—especially to the families of soldiers serving there. He can no longer ask Americans to assume that saving Afghanistan from the Taliban is the same thing as saving America from Al Qaeda.

September 15, 2009

Related stories: Andrew Bacevich, The War We Can't Win
Joel Hafvenstein, The Cost of Peace

Read more of our Afghanistan coverage here.

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