As far as I can tell, the last time we had a coherent strategy in regard to Afghanistan was in the fall of 2001. Then, our aim was crystal clear. We were there to destroy Al Qaida and to crush their Taliban allies. We accomplished that mission within months. Al Qaida has had no significant presence in Afghanistan since the fall of 2001.
Following those few months of clarity, during which a handful of intelligence officers and special forces personnel supported by local allies achieved that brilliant victory, we then began to stumble our way into an undefined and open-ended conventional military operation that continues to this day consuming both precious American lives and precious dollars in quantities we can ill afford.
What the Bush Administration's goal was in placing tens of thousands of American troops in Afghanistan remains unclear, as does exactly how such a relatively small force was to accomplish it. When President Obama ordered his famous "surge" of 30,000 soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan in the summer of 2009 there was, similarly, no clear definition of the desired end state. We sent in more forces. We offered no definition whatsoever of the conditions which would allow for their withdrawal.
It is now ten years since 9/11. Without ever consciously embracing it or publicly acknowledging it, we have wandered our way to the position of attempting to build a viable, secular, democratic nation state out of one of the world's most primitive and tribal societies. We have done so gradually, fitfully and without any comprehensive effort to determine the necessity for such an undertaking, its feasibility or the resources necessary to make it a success.
Now, incredibly, the President has actually found a way to make that situation worse, by ordering home a significant number of troops without making any change to our strategy or our goals. We will, in short, apparently continue down the path of nation building but without many of the resources we are currently dedicating to the task. The challenges on the ground will not change, only our ability to respond to them.
Having achieved our immediate objectives in the fall of 2001, from the standpoint of national security, we had only one mission to accomplish before we brought our forces home. That was to put in place in Afghanistan a government, which could guarantee that Afghanistan would not again become a base for terrorists intent on striking the United States.
That objective could have been fulfilled by installing a new pro-American leader, by offering him such minimal support as required to keep him in power and by ensuring that he understood that when and if he failed in his obligation to keep his nation free of terrorists we would return, and that he would no longer be considered a friend or ally. In short, as long as this leader maintained his side of the bargain he would enjoy our backing and when he failed to do so, he would suffer the same fate as the Taliban and Al Qaida.
Such a solution could have been crafted without any necessity for us to maintain a significant military presence in country and without our involvement in the internal affairs of the Afghan people. Our focus would have remained on our national security, and the Afghans would have been left to run their own country. We would have had what we wanted; security, and the Afghans would have had the power to decide their own future.
Afghanistan would certainly be a better place if women were guaranteed civil rights, children were educated and farmers moved away from the production of opium. None of these things has any direct connection to our national security. None of these things are, in cold, hard terms, worth to us what they are costing in blood and treasure.
National security is not about social engineering and nation building. It is about doing what is required to keep our nation and our citizens safe. We don't need a Western liberal democracy in Afghanistan. We need a government that will prevent that nation from being a platform for attacks on the United States. It's time to remember that, focus on the minimum conditions necessary to make that happen and, then, having accomplished our mission, bring our troops home.