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Seven Reasons Why We Need to Engage in Afghanistan

SOURCE: AP/Amir Shah

An Afghan girl cuts into a poppy bulb to extract the sap, which will be used to make opium.

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Afghanistan was a forgotten front for too long under the Bush administration. Yet a sustained effort in the country is crucial to keeping the United States and its allies safe and to restoring stability to the entire region. A new sustainable security approach to operations in Afghanistan that combines defense, diplomacy, and development can combat Al Qaeda and the Taliban and build Afghan government capacity and legitimacy. We must reengage in Afghanistan, and here’s why:

1. Al Qaeda and its affiliates based in Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to pose a direct threat to the United States and its allies.

Despite some setbacks, Al Qaeda and its affiliates have regained a strategic safe haven within Afghanistan and Pakistan, and its presence within the two countries has increased to levels unseen since 2001-2002. Al Qaeda’s core leadership is widely believed to be operating in the lawless border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And Al Qaeda’s operations since 2001 have become more decentralized and diffuse, as they act as a force multiplier and patron for various affiliated terror groups. Many of these groups seek to control parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan and use the areas as a launching pad for broader international terrorist operations.

2. A failed state in Afghanistan would threaten Pakistan’s security.

Pakistan has been called the most dangerous place on earth. If Afghanistan collapses back into warlordism and civil war, Pakistan’s stability will likely become even more precarious. Militant groups that Pakistani military and intelligence groups once regarded as malleable clients are now increasingly empowered and operating independently, threatening the state itself.

3. Afghanistan’s instability threatens the geopolitics of the Middle East and Central and South Asia.

Afghanistan is situated between the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia—a location that has serious implications for geopolitics in the region. The regional power vacuum that followed the anti-Soviet campaign in the 1980s led to the rise of armed warlords and powerful mujahadeen leaders backed by neighboring states engaging in proxy fights that devastated the country and destabilized the region. A rapid American withdrawal without a stable Afghan government to take its place risks a return to this dangerous power vacuum.

4. The Taliban has regained control over much of the country.

Despite early successes by United States and coalition forces to root out the Taliban, the extremists have regrouped and launched an insurgency movement within Afghanistan. The Taliban’s radical tenets—including an appalling human rights record and degrading treatment of women—are not supported by the majority of Afghans and should not be allowed to reassert themselves by force of arms.

5. Afghanistan’s opium production funds regional and international terror and criminal networks.

Afghanistan is responsible for producing 93 percent of the world’s poppy, accounting for up to half of Afghan gross domestic product. The Taliban use the revenues gained from drug trafficking to finance attacks against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Asia, and the rest of the world. Moreover, the booming opium industry has fueled drug epidemics in Iran, Western Europe, and Russia, and has been a boon to criminal elements in those countries.

6. Achieving stability in Afghanistan is crucial for the NATO alliance going forward.

The international mission in Afghanistan, operating under a U.N. mandate and led by a NATO command, is testing the endurance of the NATO alliance as a collective security organization. It is revealing a severe lack of interoperability between the alliance’s forces and creating disunity among the alliance’s members in the face of new, nontraditional international threats. Working to overcome these tensions and forging a new consensus within the alliance going forward will be a critical challenge for its members as NATO’s 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg on April 4 approaches.

7. Afghanistan is one of the least-developed countries in the world.

Afghanistan ranks as the fifth least-developed country in the world, and success in Afghanistan cannot be defined by military means alone. Applying the concepts of sustainable security and better integrating United States defense, diplomacy, and development priorities in Afghanistan will be required to root out the insurgency, build a stable Afghan state, and create a better life for all Afghans.

For more information about how to bring stability to Afghanistan, see:

Report: Sustainable Security in Afghanistan

Report: Swords and Ploughshares: Sustainable Security in Afghanistan Requires Sweeping U.S. Policy Overhaul

Video: Sustainable Security in Action: An Afghanistan Simulation

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