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Why We’re in Afghanistan

In a weekend interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, Hamid Karzai made a very good point: He said that he agrees “with almost all the elements” of President Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy except for the president’s justification for the war, which is that we are in Afghanistan to disrupt Al Qaeda.

Karzai said:

Al Qaeda is not in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan in 2001, by the combined forces of the United States, our other allies and the Afghan people. Of course, there may be al Qaeda-sent terrorists to Afghanistan that we should fight and we should defeat. But as you know, as we all know, Afghanistan does not have any al Qaeda base or center or any such structural presence.

That’s absolutely true, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight in Afghanistan. It does mean we have to be more honest about our rationale when our primary enemy is not Al Qaeda per se, but rather affiliated groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network. We have very good reasons for fighting them, because they are trying to turn Afghanistan into a center of jihadism and undo all the gains made from our defeat of the Taliban in the fall of 2001. If they were successful, it would be a major setback for the United States and would endanger the future of Pakistan as well. Meanwhile, as long as we remain in force in Afghanistan, we can project our power into Pakistan, bolster its civilian government, and disrupt terrorist operations there. If we were to give up on Afghanistan’s future, it is extremely doubtful that we could, from long distance, do serious damage to terrorist groups plotting against us and our allies.

So the existence of Al Qaeda is indeed related to our presence in Afghanistan but it’s not the only, or even the overriding, rationale for our war effort. I believe Obama knows this, but he didn’t bother explaining it when he unveiled his Afghanistan policy. On substantive grounds, his policy decisions are very good; but their rhetoric was too narrow, too focused on Al Qaeda, and not open enough about the need to engage in nation-building in Afghanistan as the best long-term strategy to prevent a terrorist takeover. At the moment, that’s a small enough problem but it could grow as Americans start to notice that most of the enemies our troops are fighting aren’t affiliated with Al Qaeda.