January 2009 - In 2009, the Obama administration will attempt to deliver on campaign promises to change the Afghan war’s trajectory. In April, the Strasbourg NATO summit will determine the alliance’s role in shaping the future of the country and the region. By the fall, Afghans will have voted for their president for only the second time since 2001, an event which may irrevocably set the country’s course. By the end of this summer’s fighting season, the war in Afghanistan will not yet be won, but it could well be lost.
After seven years and the deaths of more than a thousand American and coalition troops, there is still no consensus on whether the future of Afghanistan matters to the United States and Europe, or on what can realistically be achieved there. Afghanistan does matter. A stable Afghanistan is necessary to defeat Al Qaeda and to further stability in South and Central Asia. Understanding the war in Afghanistan, maintaining domestic and international support for it, and prosecuting it well requires three things: a clear articulation of U.S. interests in Afghanistan, a concise definition of what the coalition seeks to achieve there, and a detailed strategy to guide the effort.
U.S. interests in Afghanistan may be summarized as “two no’s”: there must be no sanctuary for terrorists with global reach in Afghanistan, and there must be no broader regional meltdown. Securing these objectives requires helping the Afghans to build a sustainable system of governance that can adequately ensure security for the Afghan people—the “yes” upon which a successful exit strategy depends.