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Contra Richard Haass

2:22 PM, Oct 10, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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In a Washington Post op-ed, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that Afghanistan does not matter as much as General McChrystal and our military leaders think. Haass says Afghanistan is not a "war of necessity," but a "war of choice." His reasoning does not justify his conclusion.

Haass says there are four reasons people put forth to demonstrate that Afghanistan is important, but "[n]one of these assumptions is as strong as proponents maintain." But they aren't blithe assumptions. They are well-reasoned arguments. Let's consider each in brief.

Haass summarizes the first argument he wishes to dismiss this way: "First, if the Taliban returns to power, Afghanistan will again be a haven for terrorist groups." This is undoubtedly true and Haass does not offer any reason to think otherwise. (For a detailed analysis of how al Qaeda functions within the Afghan insurgency, and is a staunch ally of all the insurgency groups we face today, see here.)

But Haass says that al Qaeda "does not require Afghan real estate to constitute a regional or global threat," because the organization can and does use areas such as Yemen and Somalia. Using Haass's logic, then, why not allow al Qaeda and its allies to take over whatever geographic territory they desire? After all, there will always be "areas of least resistance" for them to "gravitate" towards.

The problems with Haass's reasoning are manifest. Jihadist hotspots such as Yemen and Somalia are certainly concerns. And America needs a strategy for dealing with al Qaeda's presence in both nations. But, al Qaeda and its allies grew out of the original conflict in Afghanistan, which was orchestrated from Pakistan. This is why al Qaeda is strongest in South Asia today.

With the exception of a five-year or so sojourn in Sudan during the early 1990s, the al Qaeda terrorist network has always been centered in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Only a porous dotted line separates those two nations, and al Qaeda's central leadership is, for the moment, on the Pakistani side of that "border." So, while al Qaeda desires Yemen and Somalia, those countries are a few neighborhoods over, whereas Afghanistan is in al Qaeda's backyard.

This is the chief reason that American and coalition troops are not involved in a day-to-day struggle for Yemen or Somalia, as they are in Afghanistan. One could add that there is slim chance that Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, AbuYahya al Libi, and their ilk, are moving to either Somalia or Yemen any time soon.

Haass summarizes the second argument he claims to rebut this way: "Second, if the Taliban takes over, Afghanistan will again become a human rights nightmare." Again, this is true and Haass offers no reason to dispute it. Instead, Haass dismisses this concern out of hand by snidely remarking that "helping Afghan girls get an education, no matter how laudable, is not a goal that justifies an enormous U.S. military commitment."

But this isn't just about the education of Afghan school girls, as admirable a goal as that is, now is it? Yes, there is frequently a balancing act between human rights concerns, which certainly have a place at the table, and America's national security interests. This has been pointed out time and again by our foreign policy experts, so we don't need Haass to point it out again. Moreover, Haass is simply wrong in how he attempts to introduce this sliding scale here.

Recall what happened in Afghanistan the first time around, when America, Pakistan, and the Saudis bled the Soviets dry by massively funding and arming the mujahideen. After the Soviets left, so did America's interest. The result was a bloody civil war, the rise of the Taliban, and the mass oppression of the Afghan people -- who have been traumatized as much as any peoples on this planet over the past thirty years.

So, this isn't just about educating a few Afghan school girls. There are very real concerns about the battle for Muslim hearts and minds too. Consider how America would be perceived if it decided that killing senior al Qaeda leaders warranted its presence in the region, but committing the necessary resources to prevent al Qaeda's brethren from brutalizing and terrorizing Muslim civilians in Afghanistan was not worth the effort.