Despite opposition from many within the Democratic Party and even within the White House against deepening US involvement in Afghanistan, President Obama has courageously decided to fight this war—using, as he put it, “all elements of our national power to defeat al Qaeda, and to defend America, our allies, and all who seek a better future.” In a White Paper, his administration has affirmed that Washington aims “to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually destroy extremists and their safe havens” within the “Af-Pak” region because doing so constituted America’s “vital national security interest.” All this is good, but by failing to admit, out of political convenience, that the United States will engage in nation-building in Afghanistan—even as Obama embarks on just that mission—the president risks undermining his own strategy.
Comprehensive engagement in Afghanistan, of course, was opposed by a variety of constituencies. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), for example, warned against any reconstruction intended “to make [Afghanistan] our 51st state,” suggesting instead that allied objectives in that country be limited to ensuring that “it does not become an al-Qaeda narco-state and terrorist beachhead capable of destabilizing neighboring Pakistan.” Others, such as the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb, urged Obama “to explore a strategy of power extrication” by which the United States would “leave Afghanistan” because “trying to eliminate the Taliban and Qaeda threat [therein] is unattainable.” Some other alternatives were proposed as well. David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute wondered whether the US would “be able to extricate [itself] sooner if we accept a decentralized Afghanistan with some regions ruled by groups that are currently fighting against our troops?” And, one senior NATO official, reflecting the view of many European governments eager to end their involvement in Afghanistan, has been quoted by the Guardian as arguing that Kabul “doesn’t need to be a democracy, just secure.”