The Afghanistan comments -- if perhaps not a fully articulated Afghanistan policy -- expressed by Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman (and to a lesser extent, Mitt Romney) provide an opportunity for a real look at a long-term U.S. policy for Afghanistan. The current debate over troop levels is good in that it focuses attention on the problem, but asking how many troops we should withdraw this summer and over the coming year is the wrong question, and much too narrowly focused. To date, our actions in Afghanistan seem to be reactive. A proactive look at Afghanistan would start by asking the following:
- What are our national interests in Afghanistan? Which of those are vital?
- How much are we willing to pay for them (money, blood, institutional focus)?
- What other costs does our policy in Afghanistan incur (e.g., reduced leverage in Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan due to reliance on supply lines through their territory)?
- What are the opportunity costs? How might our goals be accomplished in other ways?
- Is our policy sustainable to some sort of completion?
- And what -- if anything -- do we owe to the people of Afghanistan who have sided with the NATO effort?
This conversation needs to happen, and it needs to happen in Washington. Too often we hear from politicians and pundits that we should defer to "the commander in the field." But the commander in the field does not ask and should not be asking these questions. It is not the place of the ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus to ask questions about our interests and do a cost-benefit analysis. It would be irresponsible of him to openly opine that his assets might be better used in, say, Africa (let alone downsized to save money for domestic priorities). It is his job to do the best he can with the resources provided within the scope of clearly articulated national policy guidance that should, and must come from Washington.
I do not know what the proper troop number is for Afghanistan. I'm not sure any one person does. It is the most complex problem I have ever had to work on personally and the equation is incredibly multi-variant. For Washington pundits wielding Afghanistan as a political cudgel, to reduce our options to either "stay the course" in support of buzzwords such as "provide leadership" and "show strength" lest we "retreat" or -- conversely -- abandon the effort entirely (which is what a 10,000 - 15,000 troop counterterrorism effort would amount to) is simply unhelpful and shows a lack of seriousness.
Afghanistan has been foreign policy by domestic politics for far too long, ever since it was cast as the "good war" in opposition to the "bad war" in Iraq during the 2006 mid-term congressional elections. While the Republican primaries may be a sub-optimal place to have a truly rational discussion, that we finally have a venue in which to openly debate the relative value of our interests in Afghanistan can only be helpful.