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Defeating the Taliban *Is Not* the Goal

Posted by jasonrosenbaum on February 23rd, 2009

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A debate I participated in with David Atkins (thereisnospoon on Daily Kos) for the Rethink Afghanistan debate series is up. Though I disagree with Atkins, I think he has some strong arguments. I take strong issue, however, with the thesis that we must defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. Our goal in Afghanistan is not to defeat the Taliban. Our goal in Afghanistan – as it is in any war – is to keep our country safe. While some people think those two goals are one and the same, I do not, and neither do some other noted experts.

President Obama has ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, despite a noted lack of strategy and a shifting mission. As we contemplate leaving those troops in Afghanistan for years, and possibly adding another 15,000 or so to the mix, we should carefully consider all of our options.

Yes, one option is to escalate and try to defeat the Taliban. For the life of me, I can’t see how this can be accomplished. For one, “the Taliban” are actually a loosely affiliated set of groups, so treating them a monolithic enemy is counterproductive. Second, the Taliban are a homegrown operation. As such, they can never truly be defeated. You may be able to kill the leaders, and you may be able to blunt their military capacity, but when we leave (and we will leave one day), they will be back in some form. I can’t point to a single instance where an outside force every truly defeated homegrown guerrillas. It very well may be impossible.

But maybe there are other options, too. I, for one, am open to the Taliban (or some factions in the Taliban) being part of or even most of the eventual Afghan government. Political co-option is a powerful thing – this is how the Irish Republican Army was eventually “defeated.”

The question is, as it always should be: Do these options keep America safe? Escalation may keep America safe in the short term, but increasing civilian casualties and a long occupation are sure to stoke anti-Americanism in the country for a generation. But could not escalating, or even beginning a withdrawal, keep America safe, too? And if it could, aren’t we morally bound to choose that less expensive and less bloody course?

The Carnegie Endowment thinks we can de-escalate and still keep our security, and they’ve outlined a policy to do it. Our allies are coming to the conclusion that withdrawal might be ok, as well, with seven coalition countries having either already withdrawn or announced withdrawal dates. If it is possible to not escalate, or even set a strategy for eventual withdrawal, and keep America safe, we should do it.

That is what I’d caution Atkins and others who support the surge in Afghanistan to keep in mind. The goal of this war is to keep America safe and nothing else. It is incumbent upon you to prove escalation is the only way we’re going to keep America safe. This is the standard you must meet when you put America blood on the line. Any less is just wrong.

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