During the campaign of President Obama, I was leery about his fierce intension to pursuit Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to the point that he would engage in a war against the Taliban. Yet, I felt, like most people, that it was a righteous objective, since it was aimed at atonement for the 3,000 people ruthlessly killed by Al Qaeda operatives at the New York World Trade Center bombing in 2001.
The mission now appears to be to wipe out the Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan so that it cannot pursue operations against the U. S. or any other targets globally. This would be fine, except that there is widespread recognition that much of the base of Al Qaeda is also in Pakistan.
The major problem is that although the Taliban has relations with Al Qaeda, no one has yet defeated the Taliban, neither the Russians nor the British, and it is unlikely that a full fledged war between them and the United States will change that history. They have the advantage of familiarity with conducting military operations on their own terrain and we have the disadvantage fighting a guerilla insurgency – more sophisticated than that in Iraq – from a distance.
The question is how long will that strategy take and how much will it cost in money and lives and, most important, will it lead to the primary objective of capturing or killing bin Laden?
So, the question I have is whether there is a mission in Afghanistan narrower in the sense that it is possible to pursuit Osama bin Laden with the assistance of the sympathetic Afghanistan government, now that it looks like Hamid Karzai has been re-elected. This means that the current policy must be reassessed and changed, especially in a context where there are major domestic initiatives that the administration has begun, the financing of which will severely strain its ability to pursue a war against the Taliban and to effectively nation-build in Afghanistan.
The opportunity is that public opinion polls are now showing that the American people have grown weary of the war in Afghanistan, not because of doubts about the just principle of retribution, but because they have historic domestic challenges that places this war in a decidedly lower priority. For the first time, the war in Afghanistan registers in the 20s depending on what poll you choose, suggesting that — and often indicating explicitly that — they want the U.S. to pull the plug on this war.
So what if Obama took them up on it? It would give him a golden opportunity he is likely not to get in the future to close down two wars, save trillions of dollars that he could invest in other more urgent priorities like jobs, housing, education and health care, projects he has proposed that may cost Americans an estimated $9 trillion in the next ten years. The risk is that when the financial crisis is over, he could be blamed for having shut down the wider policy with Afghanistan, but he should continue all the while to vigorously hunt for Osama bin Laden so as not to be vulnerable to the claim that he did not seek retribution for his attack on the U.S.
In any case, many of the questions that Obama is now receiving concerning how he would pay for health care and many of the other programs that he has begun could be helped along by a good look at the military budget and its contribution to the style and resources needed for war-fighting. Gates has wanted to streamline the Defense Department, but it has been unclear how this would happen in the context of pursuing wars in the Middle East or elsewhere. This could give him the chance.
Obama has a lot on his plate now and it would be smart, even if it has some negative ripple effect, to take one big potentially disastrous problem off the table.
Dr. Ron Walters is Professor Emeritus of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park.