Is the U.S. Presence in Afghanistan Worth It?

Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discusses the war in Afghanistan with Harry Smith on "Face the Nation," August 1, 2010.
Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discusses the war in Afghanistan with Harry Smith on "Face the Nation," August 1, 2010. (Photo by: Chris Usher)
Chris Usher/CBS

July was the bloodiest month for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001, with the announcement Friday that .

When asked what Americans should believe about the U.S. role in Afghanistan and whether the fight can be won, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the focus is to prevent the country from returning to being a safe haven for terrorists, as it was when the Taliban ruled in 2001.

Appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation," Mullen said President Obama's strategy to dismantle and defeat al Qaeda networks is a regional strategy now that the militants have moved for the most part into Pakistan.

"We left Afghanistan in the late '80s, we left Pakistan in the late '80s, and we find ourselves back there now. And certainly the questions that are out there from the citizens in those countries are, 'Are we going to stay this time or not?'" Mullen told guest host Harry Smith. "I believe that we've got to stay.

"We've got the right strategy, the right resources. In fact, it hasn't been resourced really until the last year. So yes, it's the most deadly month. Sadly and tragically, we predicted this would be a very difficult year. But we've got the right strategy and leadership and this over the course of the next year or so is really a critical time."

However, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, argued that the U.S. should scale down its ambitions in Afghanistan, saying, "I don't think it's really worth it.

"I don't think Afghanistan warrants the scale of investment the United States is making," Haass told Smith. "The C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta as you know, Harry, estimates there's only 50 to 100 al Qaeda people left in the country. So the scale of what we're doing is way too much.

"Also, I don't really think it's going to work, to try to do a nation-building or state-building effort in a place like Afghanistan, which has no tradition of a strong central government, which is divided along sorts of ethnic and tribal and geographic lines. Also, you've got a sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan. I simply don't think the sort of strategy we're doing can succeed.

"Instead, I would scale back - to be clear not leave, not to withdraw, but I do think the United States ought to scale back dramatically to do something much more along the lines of counterterrorism, more akin to the sort of limited actions we're doing in places like Somalia and Yemen where we use drones, we use cruise missiles, we use covert operatives, we use special forces to go after the terrorists. But we do not try to remake a society."

When asked if al Qaeda even requires a home base - in Pakistan, Afgahnistan or elsewhere - Haass replied, "It certainly doesn't require one in Afghanistan. There's nothing special or unique about Afghan's real estate. Al Qaeda requires some places to work out of. But it could also be out of New Jersey or out of Michigan. Al Qaeda is not an organization in the sense of a tight knit IBM of terror; It's much more cellular. It's diffuse. It needs access to money, access to the Internet to train and equip people. It's very diffuse. Nothing special about any single country. It doesn't need a single face."

Haass said that with problems with the Karzai government, with the Pakistani intelligence service's ties to militants, the United States can't succeed if our goals are to accomplish "great things," because "the deck is stacked" against us.

"But sometimes in foreign policy you've got to think not about what it is you want to create," Haass added. "You've got to be more modest and think about what it is you want to prevent. What it is we ought to be trying to prevent is that Afghanistan again becomes a place where terrorists operate freely. We also don't want Afghanistan to become a base to destabilize Pakistan. I'm arguing that we can do those things with a far more modest American force."

He said the U.S. should not bank on creating a strong central police or military in Afghanistan. "I would think much more about arming the locals, various tribesmen and so forth. That's the nature of Afghan territory, of Afghan society.

"I would also think about talking directly to the Taliban. I don't assume and I don't understand why the administration assumes that if elements of the Taliban regain footholds in Afghanistan, as they surely will, why do we assume they are necessarily going to make the same decision they made last time and bring back al Qaeda? It's quite possible that many of the Taliban can be persuaded not to get back into bed with al Qaeda. That ought to be something we explore."

"The part of that partnering up again with the Taliban brings the fear of the kind of ruthless rule that pervaded there for the longest time," Smith said, alluding to the cover of this week's Time Magazine showing a young woman whose nose and ears were cut off by the Taliban. "We can't prevent that in the long term, in the future, but if we're not there in a significant way, doesn't that leave that vacuum for the Taliban to move back in again?" he asked.

"Some of that unfortunately is going to happen in those areas that the Taliban once again prevail in," Haass said. "I don't like it. On the other hand, I don't think, Harry, we can ask 100,000 American men and women in uniform to essentially put their lives on the line to try to remake the politics and society of Afghanistan.

"I don't sit here and say that happily but I think we've got to be realistic about what it is we use our military for and what it is we ask people to put their lives on the line for."

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at and