Op-Ed

Bin Laden not Afghanistan end game

U.S. Marines run through dust kicked up by a Black Hawk helicopter as they rush a colleague wounded May 10 in an IED strike for evacuation near Sangin, in the volatile Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan.
U.S. Marines run through dust kicked up by a Black Hawk helicopter as they rush a colleague wounded May 10 in an IED strike for evacuation near Sangin, in the volatile Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan. AP

At issue | May 3 Herald-Leader editorial, "Justice at last for bin Laden; Another reasonto leave Afghanistan"; May 3 column by syndicated columnist George Will, "Police work vs. military misadventures"

The editorial and George Will's May 3 commentary raise interesting questions about the value of killing Osama bin Laden. The editorial seems to say that this is "mission accomplished," so let's saddle up the troops and get out of Dodge. We have more important fish to fry here at home.

Will's focus is a little broader when he uses a Marine Corps War College analyst's cost accounting of the value of having 140,000 NATO troops searching for the elusive 100 or so al-Qaida fighters allegedly still in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater of operations.

Both approaches ignore the strategic policy goal the Bush administration put forth when we first sent intelligence and military into Afghanistan in 2001.

Governments that deploy forces abroad to execute foreign policy goals generally articulate the desired strategic end state. The operational and tactical goals necessary to accomplish that end state are usually formulated by the military and their civilian leaders. Sometimes circumstances demand that the national leadership also speak to operational or tactical goals.

The 1989 invasion of Panama is an example where the actions of one man, Manuel Noriega, were so egregious that his capture became a stated policy goal. However, his capture was a tactical goal (and as Will suggests in a different context, more of a law enforcement matter than a military one).

The strategic goal in Panama was to install the democratically elected government of Guillermo Endara that had been denied seating by the Noriega regime.

The operational goal designed by the military to facilitate the inauguration of Endara and the capture of Noriega was the destruction of the Panama Defense Forces that both protected Noriega and forcibly kept Endara out of office.

An argument can be made that, in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration actually articulated policy goals at all three levels. The strategic end state was to assist the people of Afghanistan in the effort to establish a government that would never again harbor terrorist headquarters or training camps.

The operational goal to set conditions for establishment of that government was the defeat of the Taliban. The goal that seemed to get the most attention was killing or capturing Osama bin Laden, but that was just a component of the broader tactical goal to kill or capture as many al-Qaida terrorists as we could to prevent further attacks on our country.

Viewed in this light, it is obviously premature to be talking about massive reductions in troop strength in Afghanistan. The center of gravity in this effort was never bin Laden or al-Qaida. It has always been the Taliban and, as we are reminded by daily press reports from the battlefield, they are still intent upon ejecting NATO from the country and reestablishing their brutal form of government.

They know that they cannot defeat us by going toe-to-toe, so they will continue to use the asymmetric tools that have proven so effective there and elsewhere: suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, assassination of key leaders, intimidation of rural populations, etc.

The elimination of bin Laden is significant but it is still merely a tactical accomplishment in a mission strategically focused on creating a viable Afghanistan.

So, we have 140,000 NATO troops in a country of 249,984 square miles not to chase 100 al-Qaida terrorists, but to interdict Taliban incursions along a 1,600- mile border with Pakistan, while also training and equipping the Afghan security forces necessary to provide long-term stability to the country.

Just as we did, and continue to do, in Iraq, once those forces are capable of performing their missions without assistance, then we should leave. To leave beforehand would indeed call into question the value of the entire effort.

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