The Difference Between Retaliation and Nation Building: About 10 Years


In a New York Times op-ed piece, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) argue that President Obama can and should remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan faster than he plans:

His plan would not remove all regular combat troops until 2014. We believe the United States is capable of achieving this goal by the end of 2012. America would be more secure and stronger economically if we recognized that we have largely achieved our objectives in Afghanistan and moved aggressively to bring our troops and tax dollars home.

After Al Qaeda attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, we rightly sought to bring to justice those who attacked us, to eliminate Al Qaeda's safe havens and training camps in Afghanistan, and to remove the terrorist-allied Taliban government. With hard work and sacrifice, our troops, intelligence personnel and diplomatic corps have skillfully achieved these objectives, culminating in the death of Osama bin Laden.

But over the past 10 years, our mission expanded to include a fourth goal: nation-building. That is what we are bogged down in now: a prolonged effort to create a strong central government, a national police force and an army, and civic institutions in a nation that never had any to begin with….

It is not too late to change course in what has become the longest American war in history.

That "longest war" thing sure snuck up on us, didn't it? Merkley et al. do not specify exactly when the "nation-building" phase started. But by by saying that the war's legitimate goals culminated in the death of Osama bin Laden last spring, they imply (perhaps unintentionally) that all the lives and money expended up to that point were justified. Yet Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by a helicopter-borne assault team; was a decade-long occupation of Afghanistan necessary to accomplish that? How soon would the war have been over if the mission had been limited to "bring[ing] to justice those who attacked us," "eliminat[ing] Al Qaeda's safe havens and training camps," and "remov[ing] the terrorist-allied Taliban government"?