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Time for urgent debate on Afghanistan

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
A U.S. Marine stands watch on October 22, 2010, in Kajaki, Afghanistan.
A U.S. Marine stands watch on October 22, 2010, in Kajaki, Afghanistan.
  • William Bennett: Afghanistan war is in the U.S. national interest
  • He says the nation has historically been the base for al Qaeda
  • Polls show fewer than half of Americans think the war is worth it
  • Bennett: Obama must lead national debate as he decides on troop levels

Editor's note: William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- With all of the news and discussion over events from Libya to Syria to Yemen to Pakistan, it has become easy to neglect thinking about our oldest war front, the only war front apart from Iraq where the Congress has actually authorized a campaign: Afghanistan.

Perhaps, then, for all but families with relatives in the armed forces, it was a bit of a wake-up call to see the war front of Afghanistan come crashing back into the news, prompted by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' final farewell tour with the troops.

At the same time, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll details the "rise" in Americans' support for the war. But that "rise" requires some discussion, as does the entire enterprise in Afghanistan, as does the new dispute between the military leaders and the White House on the rate of our scheduled withdrawal.

The question asked by the poll was "Do you think the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, or not?" The rise in poll numbers went from 31% to 43%. In other words, a clear majority of Americans do not think the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting.

William J. Bennett
William J. Bennett

At various points in our recent history, those numbers have gone back and forth, with that question having been asked 17 times since 2007. But a majority of Americans have said they thought the war worth fighting only six times since 2007 (and two of those times just barely, with 51% approval).

The war in Afghanistan is critically important, and critically important to get right. I cannot say it any better than CNN's Peter Bergen, writing in The New Republic: Those who argue "the effort to secure Afghanistan is not a matter of vital U.S. interest ... could not be more mistaken. Afghanistan and the areas of Pakistan that border it have always been the epicenter of the war on jihadist terrorism."

Indeed, there is a unique connection between the very name of al Qaeda and Afghanistan, as Bergen details:

"The very words Al Qaeda mean 'the base' in Arabic; and, as bin Laden explained in an interview with Al Jazeera in 2001, the name is not a reference to some kind of abstract foundation but, rather, to a physical spot for training: 'Abu Ubaidah Al Banjshiri (an early military commander of Al Qaeda) created a military base to train the young men to fight. ... So this place was called 'The Base,' as in a training base, and the name grew from this.'

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"But it isn't just a safe haven that Al Qaeda wants; it is a state. As Zawahiri explained ... in his autobiographical Knights Under the Prophet's Banner, 'Confronting the enemies of Islam, and launching jihad against them require a Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land that raises the banner of jihad and rallies the Muslims around it. Without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.' No wonder Al Qaeda remains so committed to Afghanistan -- and so deeply invested in helping the Taliban succeed."

And, of course, it is important to keep in mind how much terrorism -- before and beyond 9/11 -- came out of Afghanistan, how important that country has been to al Qaeda. Again, as Bergen has documented, Afghanistan provided the training base for Ramzi Yousef, of the first World Trade Center bombing. It provided the training base for suicide attackers who hit U.S. Embassies in Africa in 1998, for the plotter who attempted to blow up LAX in 1999, for the bombers of the USS Cole in 2000, the terrorist hijackers from 9/11, the Bali nightclub bombers in 2002, the leader of the 2005 subway plot, and more.

And yet, after ten years of fighting there, including a surge that began in 2009, the country is still not secure, safe, or stable. Indeed, ironically, it has turned out that Iraq was the easier country to win. Yet there is still reason for optimism in Afghanistan.

As Kimberly and Frederick Kagan have recently pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, we have done reasonably well in Kabul and the coalition has been "reasonably effective" in the south. But as we near the July date set by the president to begin withdrawals, we are simply not ready to withdraw in substantial numbers, certainly not if Afghanistan is still seen as an important war front.

And that is what remains the important question. Is the war there important? Abraham Lincoln was right: "Public opinion in this country is everything," and we have not had a majority who've thought the war was either important or worthwhile in a very long time.

Before we begin the July withdrawals that again have sparked a difference of opinion between the military leaders and the White House, it is important that the rest of America's public opinion is solidified. We need to hear from the president on his views and plans for Afghanistan. And we should have congressional hearings on all that has been accomplished there, what remains to be accomplished, whether the rules of engagement are sufficient to the task, and what we should define as a victory in Afghanistan.

We haven't had this national education and conversation in a very long time. And just now is exactly the time to begin it again.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

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