Securing Afghanistan means securing America

The setback appears to be Afghanistan’s far-from-perfect presidential election in August, which has crippled the Karzai government’s domestic and international credibility and caused members of Obama’s administration to question America’s involvement. For example, though Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S./NATO commander in Afghanistan, has reportedly requested some 40,000 additional troops, Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' Trump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' 2020 Democrats look to cut into Biden's lead with black voters MORE and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel are reportedly counseling against it. In short, these deliberations make the administration appear uncertain.

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The situation demands direction: The president must now decide on a strategy and stick with it. Though the Afghan presidential election was faulty, it does not change America’s national security priorities. To send a strong signal of his steadfast commitment to American security, President Obama should take four steps.

First, the president should articulate clearly America’s goals in Afghanistan: namely, to prevent another terrorist attack on the U.S. Because al Qaeda and its affiliates need the Taliban’s umbrella of protection to reconstitute a capable terrorist network, America must ensure the Taliban never rules Afghanistan again.

Second, as Gen. McChrystal has recommended, the president should approve a radical reorientation of the NATO command and enact a counterinsurgency strategy, one that places American forces among the Afghan population to protect it from the Taliban and endear it to the central government. In the process, Gen. McChrystal should steal a page from the Iraq playbook: Pay off reconcilable Taliban members and regional warlords, even though the chances are not as good of replicating the tactic’s widespread success in Iraq.

Third, counterinsurgency is manpower-intensive, which is why President Obama should heed Gen. McChrystal’s request for more American forces.

Combining a new strategy with more American forces is the best way to decrease violence and buy necessary time to grow a competent Afghan security force. It may be counterintuitive, but increasing the size of the American footprint in Afghanistan over the near term will allow the U.S. to leave more quickly in the long term.

Absent a decrease in Taliban-sponsored violence, the Afghan security forces will never reach a level of adequate size and operational competence that gives America the confidence to leave.

Fourth, counterinsurgency can only be effective if Karzai is perceived as the legitimate ruler of his country. Should his election continue to appear fraudulent, President Obama should push for a government of national unity in Afghanistan that includes Karzai’s rivals.

The alternative is a counter-terrorism strategy: America leaves the Afghan government, people, and security forces to fend for themselves while Special Forces, unmanned aerial vehicles, and intelligence agencies attempt to disrupt terrorist planning as it happens.

But this strategy is wrong. A smaller American presence would abandon the country to the Taliban and create an environment permissive of terrorist activity.

Furthermore it would signal America’s disinterest to Afghans’ plight. American security would count on disrupting plots as the intelligence services learn of them — a dangerous prospect as creative terrorist cells have learned to evade America’s spy techniques. In this scenario, America will never be fully confident of both finding and disrupting all plots — in the game of “Terrorist Whack-a-Mole,” sometimes the target escapes underground unscathed. It is far better to ensure the environment does not permit terror networks to operate in the first place. Sending more forces will not address all of America’s risks and difficulties. More Americans will die protecting Afghans. America’s allies’ contributions will continue to decrease. And no strategy for Afghanistan is complete without a parallel one for Pakistan, whose government America must pressure to wage its own counterinsurgency offensive.

The public’s unease with America’s mission in Afghanistan will no doubt continue as its sons and daughters are again called to fight. But now is the time for decisive presidential leadership to provide resources to a counterinsurgency effort that will ultimately bring the U.S. military to home to a secure America.

Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute; Arkedis directs the PPI’s National Security Project and is a former counterterrorism analyst for the Department of Defense.