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The Afghanistan Mission

JINSA Report #: 

August 10, 2011

Having written that "the mission" is what counts when sending American soldiers to protect, to fight and sometimes to die on our behalf, readers challenged us to define the mission in Afghanistan. We tried. Going back to the beginning of the Obama administration, we looked at what the President and Cabinet members said, and what the commanders and diplomats on the ground said. We looked at what we said. But an important part of the puzzle is what the helicopter was actually doing.

According to NATO sources, a Special Operations team in the Tangi Valley of eastern Afghanistan had become engaged in a firefight with Taliban insurgents and requested reinforcements - the ill-fated helicopter and its passengers. The valley is one of those remote places in which U.S. forces had been sitting in small outposts from 2006-09 with the goal of driving off the Taliban and providing development and jobs for the Afghan people. Read Bing West's The Wrong War for a harrowing account of the brave soldiers in the Pech and Korengal Valleys and the dawning understanding that the strategy wasn't working. In 2010 and 2011, the outposts were closed and the soldiers shifted to places with more people and a better economy. But the Taliban then had free rein in the valleys. The Washington Post reports:

U.S. forces have been drawn back into these areas. American commanders recently decided to reestablish a presence deep in the Pech Valley only six months after turning the area over to Afghan forces, who proved incapable of holding off the Taliban. Similarly, the raid into the Tangi Valley represented an attempt to challenge the insurgents in an area where the United States had once had a presence but had chosen to pull out.[1]

This raises the question: "In what sense is the Taliban our enemy?" If the United States is leaving Afghanistan over the next year, why do we care that the Taliban is reclaiming its traditional territory in the valleys?

America's mission in Afghanistan has never been entirely clear. In 2001, the undertaking was to punish al Qaeda for the 9-11 attacks and to punish the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda prior to 9-11 and not turning over its leadership to the United States after it. The fall of the Taliban, the liberation of the Afghan people - particularly women - and the institution of a more forward-looking government in Kabul were side effects of the intended punishment of the bad guys.

Attention turned for better or worse to Iraq in 2003. The Taliban re-emerged in Afghanistan even as al Qaeda mutated and moved its parts to Iraq and eastern Syria, Yemen, Indonesia, the Maghreb, and eastern Africa. In 2007-8, then-Senator Obama, believing the war in Iraq had been a mistake, focused his attention on what he considered the more important war - Afghanistan. "We were distracted [by Iraq] from our efforts not only to hunt down al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but also to rebuild [Afghanistan]so that people have confidence that we were to here to stay over the long haul, that we were going to rebuild roads, provide electricity, improve the quality of life for people."

As President, however, he specifically declined to engage in "a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests... We can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars."

As we mourn the weekend's losses, it seems fair to say that the mission in Afghanistan remains muddled and fluid.

What we ask of our troops is everything. What we ask of our leaders is only a consistent mission and a strategy for its achievement. While the troops continue to amaze us with their courage, skill and dedication, their leaders have failed them, and us.

[1] According to the story, senior commanders call the raids "mowing the grass." Notes The Post, "Without a permanent presence, it is almost impossible for U.S. and Afghan troops to defeat the insurgency in these areas." It is a term of art shared with the IDF, which pursues the same strategy in the West Bank to prevent terrorism against Israeli citizens and to prevent Hamas from growing large or competent enough to threaten Abu Mazen.

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