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Which Endgame in Afghanistan, Again?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that this great New York Times story about President Obama’s Pakistan decision-making isn’t worthwhile, but there’s a quote buried in it that deserves a lot of elaboration:

During Mr. Obama’s Situation Room briefings on his alternatives, those advocating a minimal commitment of new troops in Afghanistan have argued that the United States needs only enough forces to keep Al Qaeda “bottled up” in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan.

“You could argue that even under the status quo, we don’t see Al Qaeda coming into Afghanistan,” said one official sympathetic to this view. “And so an additional commitment of forces isn’t going to apply more pressure on our main target.”

Divorce that, for a moment, from the troop-escalation question, and this quote throws into relief a conflation of endgames that the Obama administration has committed from the start. If al-Qaeda isn’t coming back into Afghanistan under these current favorable circumstances, then it’s fair to take this official’s point that the strategy being pursued is, at least, taking a rather indirect and circuitous route to dealing al-Qaeda a strategic failure. But what it is designed for is the stabilization of Afghanistan. (No guarantee that it’ll be achieved, but still.) Here’s Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on ‘Meet The Press’ yesterday:

We want to get Al Qaeda. We want to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat those who attacked us. And we want to be able to give the Afghans the tools that they need to be able to defend themselves. We’re not interested in staying in Afghanistan.

As the anonymous official’s quote suggests, these are two different goals entirely. If the goal is to get al-Qaeda — well, it’ll be nice to give Afghanistan the tools to defend itself, but it’s besides the point. If, on the other hand, the goal is to give Afghanistan the tools to defend itself so that the United States can extract itself from Afghanistan, then it’s nice if we disrupt, dismantle, and defeat those who attacked us, but it’s besides the point. Since the day Obama announced his strategy in March, I’ve been making this point. Obama’s currently reviewing that strategy to see if it makes sense. Perhaps he could disentangle this confusion about when the United States will be done in Afghanistan.

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