US needs to define mission, goals in Afghanistan

Last week, President Obama appropriately accepted Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s resignation as the top commander in Afghanistan following disparaging comments he and staff members made criticizing the nation’s civilian leadership. When his resignation was announced, General McChrystal was rightly lauded for his years of service and sacrifice on behalf of his country and his leadership of our forces in Afghanistan. In subsequently appointing Gen. David Petraeus to implement and carry out the military strategy that Gen. McChrystal developed, the president made clear the change in personnel did not equate to a change in policy.  

The appointment of a new commanding general, though, creates a critically important opportunity for the president to explain more fully how that policy and the strategy for implementing it addresses the myriad challenges we face in Afghanistan and how those challenges would be overcome with the additional resources that the administration now seeks from Congress.  

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Following the attacks of 9/11, our armed forces made tremendous strides in Afghanistan by disposing of the Taliban and helping to support the establishment of a freely elected Afghan government. 

Unfortunately, after a short-lived success, our resources and manpower in Afghanistan were soon diverted to fight an unnecessary war in Iraq.  

As a result, the dynamic in Afghanistan and the surrounding region shifted significantly, and changed markedly from that which characterized our original entry in 2001. The Taliban regained lost territory and, along with other extremist elements including al Qaeda, established a foothold in the ungoverned region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. A new Afghan government was formed. Efforts to build up Afghan National Security Forces sputtered. And we were also confronted by a destabilized Pakistan whose commitment to defending its western border and whose reliability as a partner in our efforts in Afghanistan were unclear. 

 So when the president came before Congress last May to request supplemental funding to support the deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan, that request should have been viewed and assessed not as a simple reallocation of resources, but as a request to support a new and different war. As with any new war, where we are putting American lives at risk, answers need to be provided about how the war would bring stability to the region, the length of time and the troop levels that such a commitment would require and a clear explanation of what our exit strategy would be.

Now, more than a year later, almost all of these questions remain unanswered. Just two weeks ago when General Petraeus appeared before the Armed Services Committee, he characterized the president’s July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan as something that “we would not make too much out of.”  Last month, I made my third trip to Afghanistan since taking office.  With each visit the definition of winning in Afghanistan seems to shift and evolve. This inability to identify what constitutes success risks an open-ended and unconditional commitment of U.S. forces.

But even if we accept the premise that the military goals are attainable in the time frame that has been put forth, in order for those gains to have any sort of lasting effect we will need a government in Afghanistan that is stable, an Afghan security force that can stand on its own and economic development that allows the country to sustain itself.

Unfortunately, though, we are relying on a leader in President Hamid Karzai who is seen near universally as corrupt and ineffective.  Training of Afghan Security Forces has been part of our strategy for nearly eight years, but we still have little evidence as to when they will be able to provide security in their own country without considerable U.S. support. In order to sustain any degree of stability, Afghans must have the means to create a better life for themselves as an alternative to crime and extremism, which requires long-term economic development.

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These diplomatic, societal and economic challenges are not mere inconveniences, but are instead very much tied to our ability to succeed in Afghanistan and require answers as we continue to ask our young men and women to put themselves in harm’s way.  

With Tuesday’s confirmation by the Senate of Gen. Petraeus as the new commander in Afghanistan and an expected vote on supplemental funds for the war this week, an important opportunity now exists to provide the American people with a more full accounting of what our commitment in Afghanistan ultimately entails and at what cost. The selection of the individual who leads our mission in Afghanistan is, of course, of the utmost importance, and it is essential he enjoy the confidence of the commander in chief. But even more important is a full articulation of what the mission seeks to achieve and precisely how we envision getting there. That is the high threshold that is required when sending troops to war and as they continue to serve our country with such skill, selflessness and dedication.

Rep. Tsongas sits on the House Armed Services Committee.