On August 21, the president outlinined a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and announced a plan to send more troops there. Henceforth, he said, the objective of the war will be “killing terrorists” rather than “nation-building.” Yet moments later he added that victory will entail “obliterating Islamic State, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” And all that, writes Elliott Abrams, can’t be accomplished solely by killing bad guys:
What’s entirely missing in the new policy is an understanding that Islamist extremist groups have not just guns but ideas—what the president called an “evil ideology.” To defeat their guns, our own military efforts in support of local police and military operations are necessary—and here the president was quite right to continue and to expand those efforts. But policemen and soldiers cannot provide the ideas that are needed to defeat Islamist extremism. Put another way, the president’s emphasis on “killing terrorists” is right, but he has overlooked the other half of the necessary formula: preventing those who are killed from being replaced by new armies of extremism. He did at one point say we will “dry up their recruitment,” but he did not say how we plan to do this throughout the Muslim world. . . .
The president said that “we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live, or how to govern their own complex society,” and added: “We are not asking others to change their way of life, but to pursue common goals that allow our children to live better and safer lives.” The straw man here is obvious: we must stop trying to make Afghanistan look like, say, Connecticut! . . .[But] our goal has been far more pragmatic: to promote domestic political arrangements that will be stable and will be successful in controlling territory and preventing the rise of violent groups that can threaten the United States and our allies.
Anyone, including the president and his advisers, who thinks all of that can be achieved without the slightest concern for the domestic political arrangements—vicious tyranny or benign rule, brutal repression or a decent respect for human rights, regimes that rule only by force or governments that are legitimate in the eyes of their population—is repeating a formula that failed us repeatedly in the Middle East, helped lead to the current crisis, and will eventually produce more terrorism.