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With the death of Osama bin Laden some are advising the US declare victory and bring the troops home from Afghanistan. This perspective holds that Afghanistan represents a bottomless quagmire that the US should use the first face-saving opportunity to exit, “Mission Accomplished”.

The Obama administration has been pushing back against this message, recently reaffirming their Af-Pak strategy of US handover in 2014 (though the Post reports the withdrawal timeline may be under consideration again).

Like Bush’s premature indication of victory in Iraq, proclaiming success in Afghanistan would be the wrong course. The White House should stick to the Af-Pak Strategy already underway, the surge of troops, civilian capacity builders, and diplomatic work with the regional contact group in attempting to steer Afghanistan toward stability. The death of bin Laden, though an important symbolic victory, does not secure US interests in Central and South Asia. The successful US operation against bin Laden means the US has a stronger negotiating position vis-à-vis Afghanistan and Pakistan, not that the geopolitical plates have fundamentally shifted.

Well if this isn’t victory then what is? Defining victory as simply killing bin Laden is an oversimplification. Targeting bin Laden himself is just shorthand for a much large policy aiming to to secure US interests in the region. The “national interest” can be a pretty amorphous thing, so here is my breakdown of what interests the US is looking to give firmer footing: (1) security interests, dismantling terror networks emanating from the region, (2) regional stability, an Afghanistan that can manage its own security, or at least that doesn’t devolve into a failed state, and an Afghanistan that doesn’t harbor groups that destabilize (nuclear armed) Pakistan, (3) development interests, an Afghanistan that is on a track to improving the welfare of the Afghan citizenry, lofty aims like human rights and democratization as well as down to earth goals like decreasing illiteracy and maternal death rates and improving the standing of women in Afghan society, (4) resource interests, successful exploitation of Afghanistan’s mineral resources and using Afghanistan as a route for transporting natural gas (particularly the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline providing an alternative to Russian and Iranian routes for extracting Central Asian natural gas)

Pakistani intermediate-range ballistic missiles (via Wikipedia)

To me, the plan for keeping these blocks in place is a long term commitment, perhaps including US military bases and thousands of US troops in Afghanistan for some time to come. US-Afghanistan strategic cooperation talks are underway, the outcome will determine the shape of US military presence in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled 2014 handover to Afghan forces. I’d envisage a pattern similar to that of previous US exercises of force – the US still has troops in Germany, Japan, South Korea, etc. Considering how deadly serious nations jockeying for position in Central Asia is, the Great Game has an unfortunate name. That said, the Great Game is not over. Given the presence of nuclear weapons in the region, the stakes are as high as ever.

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