The Washington Post has just published an assessment of the conflict in Afghanistan by the commander of US and NATO forces there. One striking feature of the assessment is that it contains two quite different statements of objectives. These differences nicely capture much of the debate about what to do in Afghanistan. It's a bit disturbing, though, that there is not more clarity on which mission is the priority.
The first page defines the mission as "to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat Al Qaeda and prevent their return to Afghanistan." At a later point, the mission is defined as "to reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces, and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development. . ."
So the first mission is counter-terrorism, and the second is state-building. Which mission dominates should have a huge influence on the choice of strategy. If the mission is state-building, the strategy needs to be long-term, much better resourced, and politically insulated from the inevitable setbacks (see: recent national election). If the mission is counterterrorism, the range of possible strategies is wider (the much criticized "offshore" counterterrorism operations, allying with local groups and warlords, focusing on international cooperation in the region and beyond), but likely to demand fewer resources or commitments to a failed Afghan state.
It would be useful if the assessment was more clarity on this point. Is the argument that state-building is the only effective way to pursue counterterrorism? Are NATO and the US pursuing one or both missions? If not, which one is more important?