Saturday marked the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that shook our nation. All of us, whether freshmen or seniors, international students or native Angelenos, know where we were the moment we saw the falling towers for the first time. That day should always be remembered. Unfortunately, Sept. 11 continues to burden us today in Afghanistan.
The United States is beginning to close the door on the war in Iraq. Troops are being withdrawn and the country’s security is now being turned over to the Iraqi government. This means that the main focus now shifts back to the war in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama wants to downsize the military operation in Afghanistan by July 2011, setting a soft deadline much like the one in for Iraq. According to The New York Times, about 50,000 troops of United States’ military force will remain in Afghanistan through 2011, but will aim at assisting rather than superseding Afghanistan’s army and police forces.
Ten months isn’t far from now, but the goals laid out by Gen. David Petraeus and Obama for Afghanistan remain aggressive and idealistic. American causalities are increasing. The Taliban has an unflinching grip over its stronghold in the region of Kandahar, which is thought to be where the Sept. 11 attacks were planned. The Afghan government and army have showed limited progress in their lackluster attempt to take over.
In the United States, public support for the war is at an all-time low.
And yet, the goals of the updated strategy in Afghanistan are to bring a strategic defeat to Al Qaeda by rolling back the Taliban from its strongholds, building Afghan capacity to secure its own territory, and in doing so, denying terrorists a safe haven.
This last goal brings us back to the reason the United States is in Afghanistan in the first place — the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Unfortunately, what might have been a justified and necessary response has evolved into an enduring conflict, one that seems destined to fall short of its goals.
Two of the defining elements of the war are the nature of our opponents: a non-state terrorist organization (Al Qaeda) and an overthrown political and military movement vying for a return to power (the Taliban).
The result has been an awkward and complex situation in which the United States is responsible for defeating those guilty for the attacks and ensuring that Afghanistan doesn’t become a hotbed for terrorists.
Therein lie the complications.
Only a small number of Al Qaeda members (fewer than 100, according to the CIA director Leon Panetta in June) still operate in Afghanistan. Whether Osama Bin Laden is even in Afghanistan remains uncertain. Also, American support of the Afghan government entrenches Washington in an internal struggle for power in a foreign nation. It is a mistake to overlook the fact that there are still Afghans who support the Taliban.
Still, the mission pulls at the emotional and ideological heartstrings of Americans and Westerners alike. During an interview conducted by NATO TV, Petraeus described the new strategy as “a concept of reintegration, a tactical directive to ensure there is sufficient focus on reducing the loss of civilian life in the conduct of our operations, counter-insurgency guidance, a civil-military campaign plan — not just a military operational plan.” Petraeus attempts to show the American people not only that progress is being made but that a moral air to caution and transitional development are now priorities.
None of the goals outlined above have been accomplished to an acceptable extent. Indeed, success feels elusive and faraway.
For these reasons, the July 2011 deadline is looking more and more like an impeding date of failure.
Though Taliban and Al Qaeda causalities far outnumber American causalities, by next July Al Qaeda will remain a key player throughout the world: The Afghan government will struggle to prove its ability to control the violent ambitions of the Taliban and terrorist organizations will continue to operate in the region.
Ideologically, this scenario poses an unnerving threat in the minds of Americans. Pragmatically, there are other mechanisms besides this war that are capable of preventing a future terrorist attack akin to Sept. 11, the Madrid train bombings or the London bus attacks.
A reinvigorated emphasis on finding objective, coordinated and confident intelligence, especially in regard to nuclear proliferation, should be a priority. Thorough internal policing and strong border inspection also need to be emphasized.
On a wider spectrum, the United States and its allies need to be active in financially supporting foreign governments who are committed to keeping terrorists out of their countries.
The final act of the war in Afghanistan has just begun. Unless the narrative takes a dramatic turn for the better before next summer, our troops will be welcomed home by overjoyed friends and family but will be leaving behind a persisting arena of uncertainty.
William Fay is a senior majoring in international relations.