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Is the War in Afghanistan Winnable?

The war began in response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001, and nine years later, is now America's longest war

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. quickly toppled Afghanistan's Taliban regime, which had harbored the terrorists responsible.

Unfortunately, in the years that followed, the U.S. did not devote enough resources to the war in Afghanistan, and the Taliban were able to regain strength. It is only now, with President Obama's decision last year to send 30,000 additional troops, that we have enough soldiers in place to implement an effective counterinsurgency strategy.

To succeed in Afghanistan, we must convince the Afghan population that we, not the Taliban, are their best hope for the future. And we need to make them feel secure enough that they'll cooperate with us to defeat the insurgents.

Despite the recent increase in U.S. casualties as our forces have pushed into areas previously ceded to the Taliban, there are early signs of success: For example, after stepped-up training, recent reports indicate that the Afghan National Army may be now ready to take over security in the city of Herat.

But counterinsurgency takes time to succeed. Consider the example of Iraq: Just a few years ago, the situation there looked bleak. Then a troop surge and a shift in strategy began to turn things around, and now violence in Iraq has substantially subsided and the U.S. has withdrawn its combat forces.

In Afghanistan, the stakes are high. Terrorists across the border in Pakistan continue to plot attacks. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is essential to ensuring that these terrorists cannot again use it as a safe haven from which to attack us, as they did during the 1990s and on 9/11.

At present, the path ahead appears difficult, but we can and must succeed in Afghanistan.

Jamie M. Fly
Executive Director, Foreign Policy Initiative

There are two principal reasons the war in Afghanistan cannot be won with the level of resources that the American people are willing to devote to it.

First, the Afghan government is barely functioning in many places and is highly corrupt despite more than eight years of aid from the United States and the international community. Winning the war in Afghanistan is impossible as long as the government is corrupt and ineffective.

Poor leadership creates opportunities for Taliban militants, enabling them to recruit soldiers and get help from Afghans who are angry with the government. Yet the government shows no sign of becoming any more effective or less corrupt.

The second reason is that Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan continues to support the Taliban. Pakistan helped create the Taliban in the early 1990s as a way to gain influence inside Afghanistan. Despite promises to the U.S. to help fight the insurgents, it has continued to provide aid to the Taliban since the war began in 2001.

Pakistan's border with Afghanistan is a sanctuary for the Taliban, as are certain cities inside Pakistan. Despite Pakistan's domestic problems with its own militants, it shows no sign of cutting off support to the Taliban. These safe havens and government support make it all but impossible to completely destroy the Taliban as an organization.

If the U.S. were willing to commit hundreds of thousands of troops for another decade or more, it might succeed in defeating the Taliban and building a stable Afghanistan. But the American people—and the politicians they elect—will not support a commitment on this scale. And that makes victory in Afghanistan virtually impossible.

Austin Long
Prof. of International & Public Affairs, Columbia Univ.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, November 8 & 22, 2010)