Some people now say Afghanistan is a war of choice, one we can quit if the cost becomes too high. They don't think it's a war of necessity, so serious it cannot under any circumstance be lost.
It's true that wars aren't all equally serious. But it's not true that they fall neatly into categories of either choice or necessity. To a certain extent all wars are a choice. Nations can fight until they win or lose — or choose to surrender. Wars are a test of will, and the side that cares the most about winning and has the means to do so almost always prevails.
The issue is not whether a war is a choice, but what choice is being made. It comes down to a cost-benefit analysis: Is the cost of fighting on less than actually losing the war? Put another way is the price of losing greater than fighting on until victory?
In Afghanistan, the cost of losing is far worse than fighting on to victory. It essentially would bring the United States back to a pre-9/11 state of vulnerability. A defeat and withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan would lead either to a civil war, in which the Taliban gains a stronghold over part of Afghanistan, or to complete control by the Taliban, the group that gave safe harbor to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Either way, the Taliban could give succor and support to Islamist terrorist organizations intent on attacking America.
Terrorist groups — including those that recruited, inspired and trained Faisal Shahzad, the man accused in the Times Square bombing attempt — would be able to train there and strengthen their operations with little outside interference. Such a military setback would create an unstoppable political momentum in the U.S. for withdrawal, much as happened in Vietnam.
Radical Islamist terrorist organizations everywhere would celebrate and expand their activities. They would be even more determined to target Americans and U.S. cities. Claiming they'd slain the second "great Satan" (the first being the U.S.S.R.) in Afghanistan, they would have not only the means to kill more Americans, but the will to fight on even harder.
Some may think that because the Taliban and al Qaeda don't have camps in, say, the Shenandoah Valley, such threats are far off and can be tolerated. But international terrorists don't need proximity; they only need safe harbor. Given time, space and means, they have shown they can strike the American homeland from halfway around the globe.
Another dangerous consequence of a U.S. defeat in Afghanistan could be increased regional instability, including a possible war between India and Pakistan — bitter enemies with nuclear weapons. It could embolden the Pakistani Taliban to challenge the government, and encourage Islamist elements in Pakistan's security and intelligence forces who want to attack India.
India and Pakistan nearly came to the brink of war in 2002 after a brazen attack on India's parliament in December 2001. After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India is in no mood to tolerate any attacks launched from Pakistani territory.
Yet a Taliban victory in Afghanistan could unleash a spate of terrorist attacks in Kashmir and Mumbai-like attacks in Indian cities. It was, after all, the confidence the Afghan mujahideen and their Pakistani intelligence backers gained from defeating the Soviets in 1989 that helped fuel the Kashmir insurgency in the 1990s. A return to a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan could stoke all kinds of regional miscalculations.
Some say the Afghan war is so difficult or complex that we cannot speak of victory or defeat; but that argument only obscures the choice. Wars are always difficult and complex, and although this is an insurgency war, there's no reason to conclude it won't end. All wars end. The only questions are when and what each side gets out of it.
Victory may or may not be achieved by Gen. David H. Petraeus' strategy. The real question is not whether his strategy will succeed, but whether we'll try something new if it doesn't. If not, a choice will indeed have been made — not because it was necessary, but because we simply lost the will to fight on.
One of the more tempting ways to lose the Afghan war is to conclude it isn't worth fighting because President Obama is not fully committed to victory. Accepting this thinking would only accelerate defeat — and those who argue this case would be complicit in that defeat. If the president's strategy is not working, ask him to choose another. You cannot consistently claim you want the president to adopt a winning strategy, then turn around and embrace military defeat as the alternative. If you're serious about winning, you must will the means to achieve it. Otherwise, it's empty posturing.
The Afghan war is indeed a war of choice — between containing and possibly defeating a threat from menacing our shores or allowing that threat to return and grow. There are no cost-free outcomes in this war. There are only less costly outcomes. And the most expensive one is returning that country to the Taliban.
Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times