The ongoing deliberations among US President Barack Obama's national security team and congressional leaders are necessary to determine the best possible means of successfully conducting the war in Afghanistan. But what must guide these discussions and take precedence for all parties involved is a thorough understanding of the objective and a clearly outlined mission.
Obama needs to define his goals candidly when it comes to counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and nation-building, especially as he considers sending additional troops to bolster these efforts. For example, does the United States want to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban, or does it want to eliminate al-Qaida as a terrorist organization and find some modus operandi with the Taliban?
Only when the objective is fully understood by the White House, State Department, Pentagon and Congress can Obama shape the overall war strategy and assemble the resources necessary to wage a successful campaign.
As critical as this process is to achieving a positive outcome in Afghanistan, America's national security interests are being compromised by the ideologues from both parties, who have polarized this war for petty political gain. What should be an in-depth analysis of American military strategy has become a partisan talking point for media outlets and congressional leaders to spar over.
Is it just a coincidence that every single Republican congressman favors the immediate dispatch of an additional 40,000 American soldiers as requested by Gen. McChrystal, even before the exact purpose and placement of the troops is known? And that each of their Democrat counterparts, including Vice President Joe Biden, has rejected the expansion of troops before a consensus is made as to the objective of the war?
One thing is clear, however; following the initial success of overthrowing the Taliban in 2001, the "war of necessity" in Afghanistan was neglected as focus was shifted to the "war of choice" in Iraq. This negligence allowed the Taliban and al-Qaida to regroup and remobilize as they entrenched themselves in the tribal areas in Pakistan.
As the attention now shifts back to Afghanistan, it is essential this time that the goals be realistic and attainable, with an exit strategy in mind. This war is undoubtedly dangerous and complex, so anything less than a full consideration of the options would put thousands of lives at risk.
OBAMA IS correct in trying to gather advice from those on all sides of the spectrum on a US strategy to carry out a perilous war of this magnitude. He should not be rushed into make a decision.
It is equally important to emphasize that this is not just an American war. In the final analysis, the Afghan people and their government - and the same can be said about Pakistan - must learn how to deal with insurgents and terrorist groups that are out to undermine their government just as much as they want to undermine American and allied efforts.
The surge took place in Iraq when it became abundantly clear that additional troops would turn the tide of the war. Moreover, what has succeeded in Iraq is the building of the Iraqi military and internal security forces to the level that allows the US to decide on a time line for withdrawal.
In addition, the US was able to persuade the Iraqi insurgents to join the political process. This is not the case with the Taliban and is not likely to change with the current policy. The war in Afghanistan has outlasted the war in Iraq and we are not anywhere near having an exit strategy.
For this reason, the US must focus on a number of key issues essential to its security and the well-being of the Afghan people.
The first is a targeted counter-terrorism strategy. The Obama administration's approach has been very successful, inflicting substantial losses on al-Qaida, and rendering the group considerably weaker than it has been in many years.
Because the Taliban are indigenous and there is no realistic possibility of eliminating them, to deal with them in the long term the US must fashion a strategy that could lure the non-ideological majority to give up the fight and join the political process.
Next, the reconstruction needs of the Afghan people must be addressed on a community level. One of the best ways to deter the Taliban is to provide Afghan villages with jobs and resources so that people have a stake in their communities.
American efforts in this capacity, through the Provincial Reconstruction Teams and work with local NGOs, have so far been successful, and more importantly they are welcomed by the people.
In his March address of US strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama stated, "To advance security, opportunity, and justice...we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers. That is how we can help the Afghan government serve its people, and develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs."
In this respect, the US needs to devote aid and resources to the NGOs and Afghan initiatives that have been effective in impacting the communities and building up the economy.
TO SUSTAIN these initiatives and to allow the US to settle on a realistic exit strategy, it must increase its efforts on training the Afghan military and internal security forces. These forces need to be significantly increased so that they will be capable of facing and effectively dealing with the threats ahead. The current Afghan military, with only 93,000 soldiers, should be tripled in size, as should the police force.
However difficult, expensive and time-consuming the build-up of the Afghan security apparatus is, it remains an absolute necessity. Without it, there is no hope that the United States can extract itself from the war in Afghanistan with any certainty that al-Qaida and the hard-core Taliban fighters will not reconstitute themselves. This is where the Obama administration, along with its international partners, especially the EU, ought to allocate the training personnel and necessary funding.
The Afghan and Pakistani people do not want to see their countries ravaged by an endless war, nor do they want to see hundreds of thousands American troops effectively occupying their land. They need both military and economic assistance, but these should certainly not be provided on an open-ended basis.
The US and its allies must see to it that the money is spent for the right purpose and that any troops sent over have a clear-cut strategy in mind.
Whatever decision Obama makes must be one that is clearly defined with an end-game in sight.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. www.alonben-meir.com