Shadow Government

How Iraq Explains Why the U.S. Shouldn't Leave Afghanistan

President Obama has tried to articulate a clear doctrine of when the United States should use force. He said in his Nobel lecture in 2009 that force was justified against al Qaeda because "negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms." He also said, "I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later." Force is justified when either our interests or our ideals, or both, are threatened.

These principles seem to have animated Obama's decision to use force against jihadists in Iraq. The militants, clearly in sympathy with al Qaeda's ideology, would present a danger to the United States if they gained the resources and safe haven of sovereignty. As it is, they already present a danger to U.S. allies in the region, including the Kurds.

In addition, the terrorists "threat[en] to wipe out Yazidis and other religious minorities trapped on Mount Sinjar," according to the New York Times, "add[ing] to the urgency." Despite his obvious and understandable hesitations to return U.S. military forces to Iraq, the president's humanitarian concerns combined with the United States' strategic interests added heft to his decision to use force in Iraq.

In other words, the president has articulated the best possible argument for remaining engaged in Afghanistan beyond the 2016 deadline he established for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops there.

The United States has real national security interests at stake in Afghanistan's future and the future of South Asia. Iraq could hardly be a clearer cautionary tale: If the United States withdraws before the Afghan security forces are fully prepared to lead the fight against the Taliban and to deny safe haven to al Qaeda, jihadists are almost certain to regain safe haven there, much as the Islamic State (IS) has gained ground since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. That is what losing the war in Afghanistan looks like.

But U.S. interests are not limited to narrow counterterrorism concerns. Just as in Iraq, there is the potential for a major humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan following the premature withdrawal of international security forces and development money. If the Taliban continue their resurgence in the wake of the international withdrawal (as noted by the Times here and here), they are likely to engage in reprisal killings against Afghans who allied with the Karzai government or international forces -- including whole tribes who worked en masse with U.S. forces over the years. The ethnic Hazara, whom the Taliban targeted for ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, will face the same fate as the Iraqi Yazidis. The Hazara will be joined by women, Tajiks, Christians, Shiites, and the Popalzai and Barakzai tribes.

The United States bears more responsibility for preventing mass atrocities in Afghanistan than in Libya, in which it intervened explicitly and solely for humanitarian reasons in 2011. First, the United States has repeatedly and publicly promised to stand by the Afghans and help them secure their country -- in the 2005 Strategic Partnership Agreement, the 2012 Strategic Partnership Agreement, the 2013 Bilateral Security Agreement, the (presumably) forthcoming Status of Forces Agreement, and the 2012 designation of Afghanistan as a major non-NATO ally -- promises we never made to the Libyans. The Afghans are betting their future on our promises.

Second, many Afghans have risked their lives to fight our enemies. Countless Afghan soldiers, policemen, and intelligence agents have fought on the frontlines, and far more of them have been killed than U.S. troops. Nor has their service been simply in defense of their own country: Afghan forces have regularly been a part of broader counterterrorism operations of more concern to us than to them. Their service to our country creates an obligation on our part to help protect them. No such relationship ever existed with Libyan forces.

Third, the United States has a specific and unique opportunity to invest in Afghanistan that rarely exists in other countries facing state failure or mass atrocities. In many cases -- the Congo, perhaps, or North Korea -- the United States has virtually no presence, no resources, or no platform from which to base resources; or the political environment is an obstacle to the introduction of U.S. forces. We can't stop every atrocity in the world, nor should we try.

But in Afghanistan we have a robust infrastructure in place. We have tens of thousands of troops already there. We have a partner in the Afghan government, which wants us to stay. None of these things were true in Libya; there are not true in Iraq anymore; they are not true in Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, Mali, or just about any other place on the planet that faces the possibility of a mass atrocity. If there is any single place in the entire world where we are best postured to prevent atrocities where they are likely to occur, it is Afghanistan.

Some critics argue that we've already done everything we can and there is no point to investing any more in a country seemingly impervious to our best intentions. Others argue that the Afghan government's incompetence, paralysis, and corruption excuse our obligation to them. Both are wrong.

Adm. Michael Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, famously told Congress in 2007, "In Afghanistan we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must." When the top military official in the United States openly admits that we did not devote to Afghanistan the resources required to accomplish the mission, there are no plausible grounds for arguing that the United States has done everything it can, and therefore no grounds for arguing that there is no point in further investment. Obama's surge of troops there helped, but did not change, the overall trend of under-resourcing the mission in Afghanistan.

Nor does the Afghan government's corruption erase our obligation to them. It may change how we deliver our assistance, or cause us to place conditions on its use -- but to pull out over frustration with the government's kleptocracy would be to punish the Afghan people for the sins of their government. Rather, continued engagement at least gives us the possibility of leverage to use against their corruption, while pulling out gives us nothing.

The president has outlined clear criteria for the use of force abroad: primarily situations in which U.S. interests are at stake, but also those in which humanitarian crises are possible. That is a good standard. Afghanistan clearly meets the standard. That is why two administrations from both parties have repeatedly promised for more than a decade that we will stand by the Afghans. President Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 is inconsistent with his own standard for the employment of force abroad.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Why Obama Should Get Congress to Back the Fight Against the Islamic State

The growing threat from the Islamic State and the Obama administration 's accelerating campaign of airstrikes against it serve reminder of history's continual capacity to surprise. If even one year ago someone had predicted that Iraq would mark the next site of a major American military intervention, such a forecast would have been dismissed as hopelessly far-fetched, even delusional. Yet with the Obama administration now giving persistent indications that this will be a sustained and multi-pronged campaign in Iraq and potentially Syria, the White House needs to take the next step of going to Capitol Hill and requesting Congressional support for this newest phase of the war against militant jihadism.

The IS resurgence has already forced the administration to confront some uncomfortable truths about its past mistakes, including dismissing IS as the "jayvee" team, assuming that disengagement from Iraq and passivity on Syria would carry little cost, failing to develop a robust counter-radicalization strategy, and declaring "mission accomplished" against the terrorist threat. To their credit, the administration is now beginning to approach the IS threat with the gravity it deserves. Doing so will mean marshalling domestic and international support for the sustained campaign that will be needed to defeat IS, and requesting that Congress grant a new authorization to use military force is the most important first step in this direction.

I am not a legal scholar, and am sure that skilled lawyers could make good arguments on either side for the legality of the Obama administration 's current use of force against IS without Congressional authorization. Yet even though I take a fairly expansive view of a president's Article II authority as commander-in-chief, a combination of prudence, politics, and policy all point towards the merit of seeking Congressional support.

Even before the Islamic State's resurgence, some national security legal scholars were arguing that the Obama administration 's campaign against al Qaeda and its proliferating franchises was skating on increasingly thin legal ice. For our academically-inclined readers, my Strauss Center and University of Texas faculty colleague Bobby Chesney last year published a compelling argument in the Michigan Law Review on the growing obsolescence of the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) and the need for a new AUMF. In light of ongoing U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, Chesney and his colleagues at the indispensable Lawfare blog are making similar arguments this week on the need for Congressional authorization for our current operations.

Substantively, a new AUMF, especially focused on IS and its affiliates, could take into account the evolution and adaptation of militant jihadist groups in the 13 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as the shifts and drawdowns of American ground force deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Islamic State's nihilistic wickedness may be generating the headlines now, but over time even more danger may be posed by its magnetism towards other al Qaeda franchises and its potential leadership of militant jihadist groups spanning the broader Middle East and points beyond in Africa and South Asia.

No president enjoys showing any deference to Congress, of course, and this president in particular suffers from an especially dysfunctional distance from Capitol Hill. A recent New York Times article described Obama's relationship with Congress with words like "disengaged," "indifference," "distant," "frustrating" -- and that is just with Members of his own Democratic Party. To rally bipartisan support from both Democrats and Republicans for his counterterrorism policy, President Obama will need to travel quite far down Pennsylvania Avenue, both literally and metaphorically. Yet for a matter as grave as the IS threat, I hope that Congress will be willing to set aside its frustrations and take some steps to meet this president halfway.

As a matter of politics and operational policy, securing Congressional support would bring significant benefits, including:

  • providing firm political and legal support for the use of lethal force against IS elements in any region that pose a threat to the United States;
  • mobilizing domestic support from a skeptical American public;
  • strengthening our diplomatic leverage with the new Iraqi Government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi;
  • reassuring other skittish American allies and partners that the United States is committed to this fight (such a message would especially resonate in the United Kingdom, where national security officials are still bruised over last year's embarrassing Syria vote while also grappling with the appalling number of British citizens in IS);
  • offering a more sustainable basis for detention and interrogation policies of captured IS-affiliated fighters;
  • helping repair some of the political damage the White House inflicted on itself with its refusal to seek Congressional support for the Libya War and its vacillation on the Syria resolution.

Finally, as Jack Goldsmith notes, it would compel Congress to take some ownership over American national security policy. Securing Congressional support now for the campaign against IS could also help lay the groundwork for marshalling Congressional support to repeal the reckless defense cuts in the 2011 Budget Control Act, as both the Obama administration  and Congress will realize that such a conflict cannot be sustained or won on the cheap. My Shadow Government colleagues Dov Zakheim and Tom Mahnken both supported the work of the National Defense Panel and its emphatic bipartisan recommendation to restore the defense budget soon.

As someone who has worked as a staff member in both the Executive branch and Congress, I am all too familiar with the mutual disdain felt by both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue towards each other. Congress generates enough ill-conceived and ill-informed ideas on foreign and defense policy that it can be easy for the Executive Branch to dismiss Capitol Hill as nothing but institutionalized ignorance. But such an attitude disregards the fact that some Members bring considerable expertise and insight on national security policy.

For example, in April the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft (where I serve as executive director) hosted Senator Marco Rubio for a lecture on American national security policy here at the University of Texas-Austin. In his remarks, Senator Rubio warned that the territory in Syria and Iraq controlled by IS has "increasingly has become the premiere operational space on the planet for radical jihadists to train and operate. I will make a prediction to you tonight that if things continue the way they are, soon we will see attacks staged against our interests and, God forbid, perhaps even our homeland from those ungoverned spaces in Syria." Along with a few other Congressional voices, Rubio has been consistently warning that American negligence could, as he put it in the Wall Street Journal over two years ago, "allow Syria to hurtle toward becoming a radicalized, failed state whose violence will spill over and threaten its neighbors."

Rubio's April speech in Texas generated some anxious headlines. With each passing day of IS territorial advances and threats against the United States, and with the horrific beheading of James Foley, it appears more and more prescient. We are entering an ominous and uncertain new phase in the Long War; waging it requires the White House and Congress to come together and prepare the nation.

This post has been updated.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images