Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew to Belgium early this month for what one headline called a “stealth” meeting. No reporters were invited on the trip, an unusual circumstance. The meeting included Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and other top military brass including Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen, Central Command head Gen. David Petraeus, NATO supreme commander Adm. James Stavridis and others.
Gates’ purpose was to get a first-hand, uninterrupted report from Gen. McChrystal, who is preparing a review of U.S. strategy, expected to be completed just after Afghan elections, scheduled for Aug. 20. Rumors abound that Gen. McChrystal will ask for more U.S. troops beyond the 68,000 scheduled to be in Afghanistan before the end of the year.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, however, has warned against assuming too much.
“Everybody has this sense that this is wrapped up and ready to go and that they’re just waiting to tie a bow on it and send it our way,” Morrell said. “I think this meeting speaks to the fact that this is still a work in progress.”
We hope Morrell is correct, that escalation in Afghanistan is not a foregone conclusion. It would be much better to declare victory and begin to wind down the U.S. military commitment.
As we have argued before, the core U.S. interest in Afghanistan is not determining what kind of government it has or even assuring the military defeat of the insurgent Taliban, as odious as that movement is for the most part. The Taliban are an indigenous Afghan force whose ambitions are confined to Afghanistan and parts of the troubled border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Al-Qaida, on the other hand, has international ambitions and demonstrated its abilities on Sept. 11, 2001. Intelligence experts differ in their assessments of its current capabilities, although most agree it is weaker than it was just before 9/11.
Most intelligence experts believe what remains of al-Qaida Central is holed up in the tribal regions of Pakistan, where the central government has never established effective control.
The core U.S. interest in Afghanistan is making sure that al-Qaida does not establish bases there from which it could attack the West. Few if any experts believe it has such bases in Afghanistan now. Our core interest can be achieved by informing whatever forces control the central government that any al-Qaida camp that might be established will be blown to smithereens.
The best course, then, would be to withdraw U.S. military forces from Afghanistan and focus on tracking down and neutralizing al-Qaida in Pakistan, most likely through intensified intelligence activities, aid to the Pakistani government and perhaps the occasional foray by special forces.
Secretary Gates and President Barack Obama should be prepared to undertake this kind of fundamental reassessment of U.S. interests in Afghanistan lest the U.S. find itself fighting a sophisticated and indigenous insurgent force unlikely to disappear while the U.S. is trying to nation-build in a country that doesn’t especially want a Western-style nation to be built.