The policy of the Obama administration toward Afghanistan is clearly a work in progress. On one hand, the president campaigned on the notion that the United States had “dropped the ball” on Afghanistan by going into Iraq, suggesting at least indirectly that he would pick the ball back up and turn his attention toward Afghanistan. The “mini-surge” of 17,000 additional American forces to Afghanistan announced in the past week seems to bolster that interpretation.On the other hand, the president has also announced that he intends to reduce budget deficits and that a major contributor to that effort will be reductions in spending on Iraq and Afghanistan. What is going on here?
One possibility is that the administration is going to adopt the Vietnamization/Iraqification approach taken by its predecessors. Clearly, it will never be called this – and the term is long, clunky, and inherently difficult to say aloud – but we may be looking at a new policy of Afghanistanization. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, standing in front of a podium in Ottawa at his joint press conference with President Obama, may have offered the initial gambit, running up the “flagpole” the idea of turning over the war to the Afghans as Obama stood impassively behind him, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.
What did Harper say? His reply came in response to a question about whether the PM had decided to extend the Canadian military participation in the NATO-led ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) beyond its scheduled withdrawal in 2011 (an additional commitment Obama denied asking for). While Harper did not answer that question directly, he did offer a Canadian view of Afghan strategy that sounded a lot like a withdrawal.
Harper emphasized two points. The first was to redouble efforts to train, equip, and prepare the Afghan National Army (ANA) to take over responsibility for combating the insurgency. Sound familiar? The second was to move toward more economic and developmental rather than military aid as a way to undercut Afghan support for the Taliban. In other words, he advocated a strategy for the gradual winding down of Canadian–and by extension other western–military involvement in a conflict that almost no one thinks can be won by outside military forces.
This statement of Canadian policy must, of course, be put into context. Like most of the non-American NATO countries in ISAF, the Canadians have been progressively disabused of any notions of triumph in Afghanistan, face domestic political opposition to continuing, and want to pull out. The Canadians, however, have been among a relatively few NATO allies who have provided meaningful combat–as opposed to support–troops, leading some Americans on the ground to refer to ISAF as “I saw Americans fighting.” This policy statement, in other words, plays well in Canada.
If the President really wants to reduce budget deficits, it should play well in the United States as well. Published reports suggest U.S. spemding in Iraq and Afghanistan will approach $200 billion this year, and cutting back in both places thus has economic benefits, as well as assuaging a Democratic Party base none too enthused about either war. It will also be opposed on the grounds that it amounts to selling out the Afghans and asuring the success of the Taliban.
Will a policy change to Afghanistanization work? The precedents are not encouraging. Vietnamization was an obvious utter failure, and Iraqification remains an open question. For the policy to work in Afghanistan, it would have to accomplish two ends. Once again, the prospects are not entirely enocuraging.
The first thing it must do is result in a sustainable Afghan government, which very roughly means one the Afghan people will support more than the alternative. That did not happen in South Vietnam, and it is still an open question whether the al-Maliki government of Iraq will find enough support outside the Shiite majority to remain viable.
In Afghanistan, the question is even more problematical. Recent polling suggests that only about 15 percent of Afghans would vote for American-backed president Hamid Karzai, even though 90 percent say they oppose the Taliban. It is not clear who, if anyone, they do favor. A majority, however, do agree they want the United States out of the country.
The other pillar of a successful policy of withdrawal in Afghanistan is the emergence of the ANA as a fource capable of imposing and enforcing the peace. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) could not do so, because it lacked popular support (among other things), and it is not clear whether Iraqi security forces will become adequately ethnically diverse to do the job in Iraq. If Iraqi security and armed forces remain the province of the Shiites, it is hard to see either the Sunnis or Kurds remaining quiescent.
This problem exists in spades for the ANA. The problem, as suggested earlier in this space, is ethnic composition. It is probably revealing that the Afghans, with apparent American acquiesence, have suppressed ethnic statistics about the ANA since about 2005. This suggests there may be something to hide, and that probably is the disproportionate participation of Tajiks in the armed forces, with consequent under-representation of the Pashtun plurality in the country. If the armed force of Afghanistan is considered internally as an anti-Pashtun force, its chances of serving as a stabilizing force approach zero and the ANA remains part of the problem, not of the solution.
Is Afghanistanization where U.S. policy is headed? It may prove the least worst solution. Military victory by foreigners in Afghanistan defies history, the status quo has produced the current desperation in which not even Kabul is secure, and it is not clear how much difference a few more Americans will make (especially if they replace departing NATO allies). The Aiken solution (declare victory, leave, and let those who remain figure out what victory means) is too cynical, and that leaves crafting a fig leaf policy behind which to leave under the least worst circumstances. It may not be much, but it may be the best one can do in a situation one should never have gotten into in the first place.
Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations, and national security topics. His most recent book, What After Iraq?, was published in March 2008. This essay was originally published at the What After Iraq blog.