September 15, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Terrorism

Too Much at Stake to Abandon Afghanistan

There's certainly a lot of hand-wringing these days on both the left and right over the war in Afghanistan. Among Americans, support for the fight is slipping, almost eight years after U.S. forces entered the country.

On the surface, it's understandable: There's little good news in spite of the blood, sweat and tears of our brave troops and others, including U.S. diplomats and civilians, who are often on the front lines, too.

War assessments by policymakers and generals range from "serious" to "dire" to "deteriorating." Some long-term supporters are saying it's time for Uncle Sam to pull up his tent stakes and come home.

So while the Obama administration mulls Afghanistan, it's important for all to remember - especially in the shadow of the eighth anniversary of 9/11 - that the stakes are still big for us in that remote nation.

Of course, we don't want to turn the country over to the Taliban, which would once again allow al-Qaeda to train, plot and set in motion the next 9/11, with us as the likely target.

And, like Iraq, dealing a blow to Islamist extremists in Afghanistan will have a salutary effect well beyond that country, increasing the security of those who find themselves in terrorist cross-hairs.

But while often reduced to a fight with terrorists, Afghanistan is about much more than that.

For instance, failing in Afghanistan could lead to (more) problems in already-troubled, neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban (and other extremists) have nuclear-armed Islamabad in their sights.

While a remote possibility, the last thing anyone wants to see is the Pakistani government fall to radicals, who then would possess Islamabad's nuclear arsenal of a few hundred weapons.

Perhaps increasing the odds of this, Afghan territory could become the reverse-image of Pakistan today, where the Taliban finds safe harbor in tribal areas for their cross-border assaults against the Kabul government.

(The Taliban is more popular in Pakistan than in Afghanistan).

India, the South Asian giant, is also nervous about Afghanistan's future, which could become another area of competition - or conflict - between Islamabad and New Delhi, beyond the prevailing tinderbox of contested Kashmir.

India and Pakistan have come to blows (and near-blows) a number of times since their 1947 independence from one another. The stakes are higher now that both have nukes.

Succeeding in Afghanistan is also important to containing Iranian influence in the region, which has been surging not only across the Middle East, but into South and Central Asia, too.

It's also fundamental to American leadership in the world. Both our friends and foes are watching closely as Washington seemingly undertakes endless policy reviews of its policy reviews.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama seems reluctant to embrace a war-time presidency, being more interested in advancing his social agenda than addressing national security challenges.

This is bad news as Afghanistan lurches dangerously toward a tipping point, which may result in outcomes counter to our national interests.

We all want to see our troops home from Afghanistan safe and soon. But a lack of leadership, required resolve, a clear-cut strategy and resources for the war could mean that we'll have neither - and worse.

Peter Brookes is senior fellow for National Security Affairs in the Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First Appeared in the Boston Herald