U.S. lacks a defined mission in Afghanistan

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

President Barack Obama recently announced his long-awaited strategy for Afghanistan: 30,000 more troops over 18 months with withdrawal and transfer of security responsibility to Afghan forces beginning in summer 2011. Since then, however, uncertainty about actual U.S. intentions in 2011 -- a set departure date or simply a plan for reconsideration -- has only created more jockeying for position in the region.

Applauded by some, criticized by others, the strategy seeks the least-worst solution to a complicated situation. Whether sending more troops is the right decision will be debated endlessly. But one key question remains unaddressed: What is the mission?

The president explained that he owes the military and all Americans a clear mission, but we didn't get one in the West Point speech. Our overarching goal, apparently, is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan and prevent it from endangering the U.S. and our allies.

Remember, however, that NATO troops in Afghanistan operate under the June 2009 Tactical Directive issued by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Accordingly, the primary focus is protecting civilians, even if we must refrain from targeting Taliban militants and other enemies to do so.

The result: Troops on the ground have a murky mission -- defeat al-Qaida and the Taliban or protect Afghan civilians? While inextricably linked, these two goals often operate at cross-purposes. Sending our troops without a clear mission does them a grave disservice and drastically hinders their ability to do their job.

Reading Obama's speech between the lines suggests the main mission is to create space for the Afghan forces to assume responsibility for security. But what does that mean for the U.S. Marine sergeant in Helmand province? He cannot know whether that mission requires him to defeat the Taliban, partner with locals on reconstruction, train the Afghan forces or secure a village.

The guesswork about what 2011 will bring muddies the waters even more. The Taliban recently indicated that they will simply wait us out. U.S. forces may only be fighting until it is time to leave.

As a colleague and Vietnam combat veteran has emphasized, U.S. soldiers are trained to seize and hold terrain, not to create or support foreign governments. Asking them to do the latter is a disservice; asking them to do both is simply impossible.

Our forces operate within the framework of the law of armed conflict and mission-specific rules of engagement. Both require that soldiers distinguish between innocent persons and hostile threats before using lethal force. Doing so is complicated and confusing in today's wars, even when operating within the boundaries of a specific mission.

In the absence of such a mission, however, the task becomes exponentially more difficult. Is the person the sergeant encounters a hostile Taliban militant or what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls "good Taliban," who seeks to integrate into civilian society? Killing the latter endangers the broader mission because other moderate Taliban will see no reason to integrate; hesitating when it is the former leaves the soldier at grave risk.

In addition, the multinational force is united in name only. Peek behind the curtain and you will find uncertainty and confusion precisely because of the lack of a clearly defined mission. Our allies have different conceptions of how to fulfill the broader mission and different rules of engagement governing their troops' conduct.

The Afghan Taliban appears to have few external ambitions; it seeks to wrest control from the Karzai government for its own internal goals. An Iraq war combat veteran and former student reminds us that the Taliban fights us in Afghanistan because we are there -- and supporting a government they view as illegitimate.

As he and other veterans emphasize, the main threat lies in Pakistan, a country with 100-plus nuclear warheads. The Taliban and al-Qaida have taken root in the border areas, launching countless suicide attacks against military and civilian targets in Pakistan and threatening to destabilize the government. And Pakistan has clearly sent the message it is unwilling to take strong action to contain the threat within its borders.

The gravest threat to the United States is if the Taliban and al-Qaida seize nuclear weapons. Is sending 30,000 more troops to neighboring Afghanistan the best strategic response?

The president is right that we need a clear mission. Unfortunately, we still do not have one.

Laurie R. Blank is the director of the International Humanitarian Law Clinic at Emory University School of Law. Amos N. Guiora is a professor of law at S.J. Quinney College of Law, the University of Utah; his most recent book is "Freedom from Religion: Rights and National Security."