By Senator Chris Coons
Faced with the task of charting a responsible course out of Afghanistan, President Obama will soon announce whether the conclusion of America's decade-long war there will begin with a significant withdrawal of U.S. troops or take a modest step in the direction of an eventual drawdown.
Instead of dwelling on the precise size of that withdrawal, Delawareans should listen for a strong explanation of our nation's long-term strategy in the region.
A substantial drawdown of forces -- which I support -- should not be the first step on a course of total disengagement from Afghanistan. Rather, it should mark the beginning of a new, more targeted counter-terrorism strategy that more wisely focuses our military and diplomatic resources on defending America's security interests.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week, the president's nominee for ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, said that our objective for Afghanistan was to help build "governance that is good enough to ensure that the country doesn't degenerate back into a safe haven for al Qaeda." He urged that we not repeat the mistake made after defeating the Soviets in 1989 by walking away from Afghanistan now.
I responded by agreeing that we shouldn't abruptly abandon Afghanistan, but pressed: how long will we stay and with how many troops?
"I just don't know the answer now," he replied.
The global threats to America's national security make the answers to those questions critical and urgent. Though America has never shied away from taking the steps necessary to ensure its national security, our current path in Afghanistan is unsustainable and is undermining our ability to respond to other emerging global threats.
When I visited with our field commanders and top leaders in Afghanistan in February, I was struck by the magnitude of our challenge in trying to build a nation from the ground up, given the remote, rugged terrain, the profound corruption and erratic nature of our Afghan allies, widespread illiteracy, and popular distrust of the central government. Despite these challenges, America is supporting the Karzai government as an alternative to the Taliban, funding and training an Afghan national army and police force of up to 350,000, and helping to build a national infrastructure. A recent Foreign Relations Committee study reinforced what I'd seen on the ground months before: that our $19 billion in economic assistance to help build a "good enough" national government has thus far produced very uneven progress.
On our current course, I suspect that we will be no closer to a truly secure and stable Afghanistan five or ten years from now than we are today. Our current counterinsurgency strategy does not appear to be producing an advantage that will ensure the progress we are making can be sustained after the planned complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2014.
The disproportionate level of resources we've focused on Afghanistan has limited our ability to address our complex and mounting problems with Pakistan, which is home to a range of extremist groups and the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenal. We have made real progress in killing or capturing key al Qaeda fighters and leaders in Pakistan, yet it remains the most dangerous and challenging country in the region, hedging against the United States by supporting insurgents in Afghanistan and providing safe haven to militants. Recent testimony reinforced that our large military footprint and nation-building efforts in Afghanistan may actually be destabilizing Pakistan and pushing President Karzai's government farther away from being a reliable ally.
A stable Pakistan is essential to U.S. interests, which is why we need a different path forward in the region -- a strategy that focuses far more on intelligence, special operations, and rapidly deployable units capable of targeting and killing those most determined to do Americans harm. With intelligence estimates placing fewer than 100 al Qaeda operatives still in Afghanistan, our strategy in the region must fit in the context of America's global national security strategy.
Growing extremism in Yemen and Somalia, as well as instability across the Middle East, including growing threats from Iran, all require additional resources and attention, while record deficits and pressing investment needs at home argue for a wiser use of our military and diplomatic resources. A counterterrorism strategy would result in a smaller and more sustainable U.S. commitment of troops and financial investment.
At home, I often hear that we are weary of war. Our troops have served bravely on multiple deployments and the cost is mounting at an alarming rate. The lack of convincing evidence that our current strategy is making America safer makes each Delaware National Guard deployment ceremony harder to justify and each flight of our fallen heroes into Dover Air Force Base harder to accept.
The number of troops coming home from Afghanistan this summer is important, but more critical is that the long-term strategy President Obama lays out is one deserving of the extraordinary sacrifice of our troops and the investment by U.S. taxpayers. It must also acknowledge that Afghanistan is just one of several dangerous threats to our national security and increase our flexibility to both prevent and respond to emerging challenges.