The central goal of U.S. foreign and defense policy is to ensure the safety and prosperity of the American people. In practical terms, this means deterring or thwarting direct attacks on the U.S. homeland, while at the same time maintaining the long-term health of the U.S. economy. A sound economy is the foundation of all national power, and it is critical to our ability to shape the global order and preserve our core values and independence over the long-term. The United States must therefore avoid an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan, especially when the costs of military engagement exceed the likely benefits.

What is at Stake in Afghanistan?

The United States has only two vital strategic interests in Afghanistan. Its first strategic interest is to reduce the threat of successful terrorist attacks against the United States. In operational terms, the goal is to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a “safe haven” that could significantly enhance Al Qaeda’s ability to organize and conduct attacks on the United States.

The United States drove Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan in 2002, and Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is now negligible.  Al Qaeda’s remaining founders are believed to be in hiding in northwest Pakistan, though affiliated cells are now active in Somalia, Yemen, and several other countries. These developments suggest that even a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan would have only a limited effect on Al Qaeda’s ability to conduct terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies. To the extent that our presence facilitates jihadi recruitment and draws resources away from focused counter-terror efforts, it may even be counterproductive.

The second vital U.S. interest is to keep the conflict in Afghanistan from sowing instability elsewhere in Central Asia. Such discord might one day threaten the stability of the Pakistani state and the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. If the Pakistani government were to fall to radical extremists, or if terrorists were able to steal or seize either a weapon or sufficient nuclear material, then the danger of a nuclear terrorist incident would increase significantly. It is therefore important that our strategy in Afghanistan avoids making the situation in Pakistan worse.

Fortunately, the danger of a radical takeover of the Pakistani government is small. Islamist extremism in Pakistan is concentrated within the tribal areas in its northwest frontier, and largely confined to its Pashtun minority (which comprises about 15 percent of the population). The Pakistani army is primarily Punjabi (roughly 44 percent of the population) and remains loyal. At present, therefore, this second strategic interest is not seriously threatened.

Beyond these vital strategic interests, the United States also favors democratic rule, human rights, and economic development. These goals are consistent with traditional U.S. values and reflect a longstanding belief that democracy and the rule of law are preferable to authoritarianism. The U.S. believes that stable and prosperous democracies are less likely to threaten their neighbors or to challenge core U.S. interests. Helping the Afghan people rebuild after decades of war is also appealing on purely moral grounds.

Yet these latter goals, however worthy in themselves, do not justify a costly and open-ended commitment to war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world and is of little intrinsic strategic value to the United States. (Recent reports of sizeable mineral resources do not alter this basic reality.)  Afghan society is divided into several distinct ethnic groups with a long history of conflict, it lacks strong democratic traditions, and there is a deeply rooted suspicion of foreign interference.

It follows that a strategy for Afghanistan must rest on a clear-eyed assessment of U.S. interests and a realistic appraisal of what outside help can and cannot accomplish. It must also take care to ensure that specific policy actions do not undermine the vital interests identified above. The current U.S. strategy has lost sight of these considerations, which is why our war effort there is faltering.

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This report was published on August 16 2010.

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