This Commentary first appeared as an op-ed in the McClatchy-Tribune on October 14, 2009.

As President Obama reassesses our strategy in Afghanistan, it is past time for him to level with the American people about why a sustained, fully-resourced counterinsurgency is in our vital national interest. Military intervention continues to be explained in terms of protecting our homeland from an ever-plotting al-Qaeda. This rationale has in the past provided an expedient way to buy domestic political support for committing to the war. After all, it does accurately represent the motives that originally drove us to intervene militarily in 2001. But so narrowly defining success in Afghanistan in terms of American national interest minimizes what have become our broad stakes and long-term interests in the region. Blaming the war solely on al-Qaeda has made it an easy target for its critics who argue for less costly and intrusive strategies to meet this threat where it currently resides—in Pakistan. Only by honestly evaluating the full consequences of a premature disengagement from Afghanistan can we justify continuing with a counterinsurgency strategy and hope to regain the confidence of the American public in our mission.

Opponents of a counterinsurgency strategy argue that we should instead pursue a counterterrorism strategy—directly aimed at eliminating al-Qaeda. Our hunt for Osama bin Laden and his associates was of course our major preoccupation for several years after 2001, and bears much responsibility for the under-resourced development and disregard for poor governance that allowed a reinvigorated Taliban to reemerge. Any decision in Washington suggesting that the US will back away from a strategy intended to protect and aid the Afghan people will inevitably signal an early exit of international forces. Most Afghans will conclude that they will soon again be living under Taliban rule, and that continued loyalty to the Kabul government or cooperation with the foreigners is dangerous and imprudent. Massive desertions from the Afghan army and police, on whom we have staked the country’s future security, are bound to follow. Once this occurs, international forces will be left with no choice but a hasty, disorderly departure.

Those who argue for minimizing international presence in Afghanistan doubt the likelihood or significance of al-Qaeda and like-minded organizations such as the IMU and Lashkar-e-Taiba setting up shop in Afghanistan. Practically, there is probably no better piece of geography for those groups intent on launching terrorism regionally and internationally. To contend that the Afghan Taliban have only nationalistic aims and would be unwelcoming to al-Qaeda and their allies is to ignore their close working relationship over more than a decade and the ideological changes that the Taliban’s leadership has undergone over that time.

But curiously missing in the current debate about US strategy regarding troop levels and deployment of forces are America’s geo-strategic stakes and the fate of the Afghan nation and its people. Where is the discussion of the consequences of an almost inevitable civil war, and the resulting humanitarian crisis brought on by hundreds of thousands of refugees and massive retribution against those who had cooperated with NATO forces and the Karzai government? What thought has been given to the effective division of the country as Iran establishes a sphere of influence in the west, Russia and its Central Asia clients exert their influence in the north, and Pakistan’s Taliban proxies create a security belt in the south and east? India is certain to take sides as is Saudi Arabia. As Pakistan’s Taliban insurgents find strategic depth through their Afghan cohorts, how long will it be before these extremist forces together turn their attention to bringing down the Islamabad government? What becomes of our strategic partnership with Pakistan and how vulnerable is its nuclear arsenal to non-state actors? Will a Talibanized Pakistan threaten India and increase the chances of a major war and nuclear confrontation? And with Islamists everywhere crowing that they have dealt a mighty blow to the US and the West, can we pretend that American regional and global interests will not be impacted by these developments? Who among our friends in India and the Middle East will not conclude that once again the United States has demonstrated that it is an unreliable partner, resolute only when it is in its own narrow national interest?

The counterinsurgency strategy outlined in April may not succeed. It is already late in the day for objectives that were so much more attainable just a few years ago. But for all the risks in proceeding, turning back now is far riskier. The aim of the Taliban and their friends has never been to score a military victory in Afghanistan; it has always been to wear down its adversaries until they lose heart in the struggle. With our current debate over Afghanistan, the Taliban have never had more reason to feel confident in that strategy.

Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.