Remembering “First Principles”

by Tom Donnelly

Today President Obama, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and other senior administration officials will conduct meeting initiating the second major review of Afghanistan–pardon me, “AfPak”–strategy since the administration assumed office.  While it is unfortunate to have to revisit the question of basic war aims, and while the need to get on a path toward success in Afghanistan could not be more urgent, the danger is that, once again, we will fail to define the war correctly.  This would inevitably mean we will again be confronted by these same frustrations at some future moment.

The al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001 were not the opening shots of a war–they remain most important because they marked the day that Americans understood that there was already a war for the future of the greater Middle East well underway.  This is what we really care about: the relationship between the “Muslim world” and the rest of us.   Will this be a region–strategically, a vitally important one–politically at odds with the planet?

Alas, the searing experience of 9/11 and the resulting obsession with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden still fogs our glasses.  Those least able to see a larger picture focus on the leering face of bin Laden and advocate a narrow counterterrorism effort or, in extreme cases, only a law-enforcement approach.  As Fred and Kim Kagan have made plain, this is a self-contradiction.

But what is true for Afghanistan was also true in Iraq, and is true for the broader Muslim world.  We might, one day, kill bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and the entire current AQ leadership cadre.  That would be a very good day, but it would not in itself be decisive.  The larger problem–the petri dish in which al Qaeda grows–is the larger struggle for power, the distortions of politics, in this region.

Critics are right to complain that we Americans can’t fix this by ourselves.  But the idea that we are alone is nothing but a straw man: after all, Iraqis and Afghans have died–and remain willing to make such sacrifices–in a degree far greater than we are.  Worse, this argument obscures several critical corollaries: one, that the application or withholding of American power (and other outside power) is probably a factor that will tip the balance and the outcome in the foreseeable future; and two, that the outcome is a vital American strategic and security interest.

As President Obama reconsiders whether our Afghanistan policy reflects our strategic “first principles,” he’s asking the correct question.  The correct answer–to prosecute what can be a successful comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan–is not the easy answer, to be sure.  But the wrong answer would produce far greater hardship.  The application of American power is not a panacea, and it produces unintended consequences. The absence of American power, however, will produce all-too-clear, and all-too-painful consequences.

Tom Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies.