From the Woodward Files: An Afghanistan Rationale

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We hear a lot of rationales for the ongoing war in Afghanistan. One is is that we’re flushing out al Qaeda. Another is that we’re defending the stability of Pakistan. Then there’s the argument that we simply can’t accept defeat because it would have consequences beyond the immediate region–ones that would “resonate throughout the Islamic World,” as Bruce Riedel, the man who led President Obama’s first Afghanistan review in early 2009, put it last year.

I’ve never heard this position, similar to one that conservatives often made about Iraq a few years ago, invoked by the Obama White House. But according to Bob Woodward, it was at least a factor during the White House’s fall debate which led to an increase of 30,000 troops to the conflict. Woodward writes that, in early October, Obama’s top national security officials met to discuss American objectives. Woodward writes that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who favored a robust troop escalation, argued for the imperative of winning for its own sake. “Gates said that they had to realize that Afghanistan carried a unique symbolism for the jihadist movement. ‘This was where the jihad was born’”–a reference to the mujahideen–including a young Osama bin Laden–who drove out the Soviets in the late 1980s. Woodward continues:

The logic went like this: A victory for the Taliban counted as a victory for al Qaeda, so the U.S. couldn’t walk away from Afghanistan….

[Deputy director of national intelligence] Peter Lavoy went back to his usual argument, “Were the Taliban perceived to be winning in Afghanistan, that would be a boost to militants worldwide.”

There’s little doubt that’s the case–Islamic radicals would be overjoyed to see the Taliban drive out the U.S. and take over Afghanistan. But victory for its own sake, as a matter of symbolism and propaganda, has never been an explicit part of Obama’s rationale. Perhaps Obama rejects this particular line of thought–I haven’t read the entire book yet. But it’s clear that some of his most senior advisors embrace it.

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