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Afghanistan war: Is the US in it to win it?

America's engagement in Afghanistan remains vital. Now is the time to renew our resolve and pursue our broad-based strategy, not look for an exit.

By Kurt Volker / September 28, 2010


When Gen. David Petraeus assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, he delivered exactly the right message: “We are in this to win.”

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Surely, that message was welcomed by Afghan women who fear subjugation; by parents who fear seeing their daughters sprayed with acid for attending school; by decent people trying to build a future, but who fear retribution for being “collaborators” should the Taliban return.

Washington is thinking about an exit

Yet the general’s message – “we are in this to win” – is not something one often hears in Washington these days. Much of the Beltway crowd is absorbed by Bob Woodward’s new book that highlights the policy and personnel disputes among the war’s main players. And most of the public debate seems aimed at justifying a reduction in America's engagement, rather than affirming our resolve, our long-term commitment, and our willingness to pursue our strategy to success. With an American public angry over the economy, jobs, deficits, and a tone-deaf Washington, the congressional midterm elections could become a tipping point.

Clearly, the American people do not want a prolonged and pointless war. But neither do they want failure. No one wants: a Taliban take-over; retribution and human rights abuses, with women and children especially vulnerable; increased risks to destabilization of Pakistan; expanded “safe havens” for terrorists; a shot-in-the-arm for global extremism and its hateful ideology that inspired the September 11 attacks; and a message to friend and foe alike that America cannot be trusted for the long-haul.

Faced with a choice between pointless war or failure, there is only one palatable option: success. While the military effort in Afghanistan is struggling, the broader issue driving our engagement remains the right cause: reversing the tide of global terrorism and extremism by working with local populations and the international community to help the vast majority of people who want to build society, not destroy it.

Not pursuing our own strategy

So why are we faltering? We are still not pursuing effectively our own stated strategy.

We talk about a regional “Af-Pak” policy. But the reality is that our policy remains Afghanistan-centric. We need a greater focus on helping Pakistan, on building bridges across the region, and on linking to India, China, and the global economy.