Defiant Afghanistan Deserves Candidates' Attention

What exactly is the U.S. mission in Afghanistan? And what are the presidential candidates' policies concerning the region? NPR Senior News Analyst Ted Koppel looks at the conflicts in the region during the past two centuries and what they mean for America's current foreign policy.

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TED KOPPEL: When it comes to the prospects of foreign powers trying to impose their will on Afghanistan, history provides very little encouragement.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

NPR senior News Ted Koppel.

KOPPEL: The British fought three wars over there although the first one should have been quite enough. Attempting to retreat from Afghanistan in 1842, 4,500 British and Indian troops were ambushed and almost every last one of them was killed together with all but a handful of their 12,000 camp followers.

The more recent experiences of the Soviet army during the 1980s were just as grim. They and their allies killed about a million Afghans but it was the 15,000 Russian dead that hastened the crumbling of the Soviet Empire. Twenty-nine thousand troops in Afghanistan under unilateral and NATO command. And things are not going well.

Tensions between the Pentagon and our NATO partners, tension between Afghan President Karzai and the U.N., and a growing sense that the Taliban, far form being expunged, is resurgent.

What exactly is the U.S. mission in Afghanistan these days? We know what it was immediately after 9/11 - find and neutralize al-Qaida's leadership, eliminate Afghanistan as a safe haven for al-Qaida and replace the Taliban as the country's main ruling power.

Progress was made on all three fronts and then the Bush administration got distracted and shifted most of its resources to Iraq. Al-Qaida's strength has grown, not diminished. It is still active in Afghanistan and has expanded its safe haven into Pakistan, and as noted, the Taliban is back.

The Europeans have long taken a position much derided by the Bush administration that counterterrorism is better suited to police and intelligence agencies than to the military. It is surely an issue that deserves attention, discussion, and debate. Iraq has been reduced to the ridiculous banalities of stay or get out. U.S. policy in Afghanistan isn't even afforded that much attention.

What the administration should be telling us are our current goals there. How and over what period of time are they to be achieved. And if candidates Clinton, Obama, McCain, and Huckabee hold conflicting positions, what exactly are they and why aren't they talking about it more?

Afghanistan has a long history of punishing those who take it too lightly with a very heavy hand.

This is Ted Koppel.

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