The Afghanistan dilemma

The Af-Pak region is a treacherous one. This week: a look at the northern half of the national-security conundrum.

Af-Pak âÄî get ready to hear that nifty little term tossed around constantly throughout the next decade or so. ItâÄôs how all of the hip and/or with-it national-security types are referring to the most volatile and contentious region on the planet: Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries inseparable in any conversation about global security, stability and (if youâÄôre ever feeling particularly optimistic) peace. Iraq is over, or, at the very least, it will be soon. On Friday President Barack Obama laid out the specifics of our withdrawal from Iraq. Combat missions will end by Aug. 31, 2010, with the remainder of our support forces out by the Dec. 31, 2011 date required by the Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments. On this, there is no debate (even John McCain is on board.) It may take slightly longer than some of us would like, but we have a clear endgame and a way out of the mess. What it means, though, is that our attention will shift to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the ever-present instability of its southeastern neighbor, Pakistan. The situation is mind-blowingly complex and the stakes couldnâÄôt be higher. Al Qaeda lurks in the ungovernable and mountainous border regions, the TalibanâÄôs strength grows as they work to retake control of Afghanistan and PakistanâÄôs fragile political and military system seems always on the brink of collapse. If that sounds like scary stuff, well, thatâÄôs because it is. And there are no easy answers or clear paths forward. Since taking office, the president and his administration have been trying to define with some specificity our aims in Afghanistan. Perhaps on its face it sounds like a simple proposition âÄî âÄúGo get the terrorists!âÄù âÄî but it can never be that easy. The political situations are tenuous, the military goals difficult and long-term. While keeping in mind that, as the Af-Pak moniker implies, these two countries are inseparable, letâÄôs first look at the situation in Afghanistan. Last week, a group of Afghani diplomats visited Washington to discuss the future of the U.S. involvement in their country. This comes as the Obama administration is working on a report âÄî to be released by April âÄî reassessing American strategy and goals there. A few, like AfghanistanâÄôs foreign minister, voiced some understandable concern. Much of the rhetoric emanating from the White House and Pentagon has focused on supposedly pragmatic, achievable goals: mostly wiping out the âÄúsafe havensâÄù in the Af-Pak border regions where Al Qaeda and the Taliban are regrouping and growing stronger. There has been much less talk about, for example, the creation of a lasting democratic government in Afghanistan (which Afghan officials, for obvious reasons, would prefer). And this divide âÄî between focused, pragmatic objectives and longer-term, idealistic goals âÄî brings into sharp focus the central foreign policy question of our generation: the tension between neoconservative and realist schools of international relations. For many of us who came of age under the Bush administration, neoconservatism sounds like a dirty word. As a governing philosophy, it failed miserably during the past eight years. But we cannot ignore its values out of hand. To vastly oversimplify things for a moment, neoconservatism starts with a set of values: Democracy and freedom, for example, are good. Policy is shaped, then, by striving for those ideals. In contrast, the realist school of thought makes certain assumptions about the way in which states act in their own self-interest, then selects the most pragmatic approach available to advance a given countryâÄôs goals. ThatâÄôs not to say that realists operate without larger values in mind, or that neoconservatives always ignore whatâÄôs staring them in the face. But the two philosophies do make decisions in fundamentally different ways. Neoconservatism would dictate that we do everything in our power to nurture the fragile Afghan democracy. Realism (and, remember, IâÄôm using both of these terms in a value-neutral fashion) would point out the incredibly expensive cost (in both dollars and lives) of such a project and the length of time (decades) it would require. Better to focus on the more short-term goals directly affecting our own national security: rooting out Al Qaeda and combating the terrorist threat brewing in the border regions. The Obama team seems to be tending in this direction. But obviously these short- and long-term goals are closely tied. This is a point counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen made in recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If we make no attempt to assist the Afghani government long-term, they would have no reason to allow us into their sovereign territory to conduct our military operations. We would end up having to either leave (and allow Al Qaeda to strengthen) or continue in spite of the democratically elected Afghani government (and inflame anti-Americanism). Even as we, in the short term, focus on stabilizing Afghanistan and preventing terrorist activities, we are going to have to commit to the longer-term, more traditionally neoconservative goals. ThereâÄôs an important difference, though: While neoconservatism would promote democracy-building for its own sake (a doomed operation, as weâÄôve seen), in this case we cannot accomplish our realist goals without it. As of now, long-term support in Afghanistan is a realist objective. And thatâÄôs just the Afghan half. Pakistan is arguably more complex âÄî after all, nuclear weapons are in the mix. We will look at that side of the border next week. John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]