"Our vital interests in Afghanistan are limited and military victory is not the key to achieving them." That’s the bottom line of a new report by a group of scholars and former government officials calling themselves the Afghanistan Study Group.
Harvard’s Steve Walt was the primary author of a project directed by the controversial former Marine and junior diplomat Matthew Hoh and organized by New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons. More than three dozen experts, including Atlantic Council contributors Arnaud de Borchgrave and Bernard Finel, took part in the effort.
They argue that the $100 billion each year the United States is spending in on the war effort is seven times Afghanistan’s GNP and yet these resources are bringing very little change. Furthermore, "President Obama justified expanding our commitment by saying the goal was eradicating Al Qaeda. Yet Al Qaeda is no longer a significant presence in Afghanistan, and there are only some 400 hard-core Al Qaeda members remaining in the entire Af/Pak theater, most of them hiding in Pakistan’s northwest provinces."
The authors contend that, even in the absence of U.S. forces, the Taliban is extremely unlikely to be able to retake power, much less allow al Qaeda to resume a major presence in country and, even if they did, that threat could easily be dispatched with airpower.
The short version of their alternative plan:
1. Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion.
The U.S. should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.
2. Downsize and eventually end military operations in southern Afghanistan, and reduce the U.S. military footprint.
The U.S. should draw down its military presence, which radicalizes many Pashtuns and is an important aid to Taliban recruitment.
3. Focus security efforts on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security.
Special forces, intelligence assets, and other U.S. capabilities should continue to seek out and target known Al Qaeda cells in the region. They can be ready to go after Al Qaeda should they attempt to relocate elsewhere or build new training facilities. In addition, part of the savings from our drawdown should be reallocated to bolster U.S. domestic security efforts and to track nuclear weapons globally.
4. Encourage economic development.
Because destitute states can become incubators for terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and other illicit activities, efforts at reconciliation should be paired with an internationally led effort to develop Afghanistan’s economy.
5. Engage regional and global stakeholders in a diplomatic effort designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability. Despite their considerable differences, neighboring states such as India, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia share a common interest in preventing Afghanistan from being dominated by any single power or being a permanently failed state that exports instability to others.
NATO is an afterthought in the report, with the only mentions noting that noting that many Allies have already announced that they are leaving Afghanistan. But that’s a small quibble, given the Americanization of the conflict.
The Group deserves credit for devising a politically credible path between continuing an unsustainable policy for a few more years to see how it goes and the other extreme of precipitous withdrawal. If anything, they’re too rosy even in their scaled down plan, most notably in their development plank.
There’s not much doubt that their assessment of the strategic environment is right. Indeed, it’s virtually conventional wisdom at this point.
Nineteen months ago, on the eve of Obama’s inauguration, Henry Kissinger delivered the Atlantic Council’s annual Makins lecture and informed us that for every policy issue we must consider three aspects: Our goal, our capabilities toward acheiving that goal, and our staying power.
The clearest case of this is the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Our stated objective, as Kissinger sees it, is a democratic state — in the fullest sense of the term, including equal rights for women and religious tolerance — that is centrally governed. He believes we "need to examine whether this is a conceivable objective."
Not only is our goal the achievement of something that has never existed in that territory but, to the extent that it’s plausible nobody seriously thinks it possible in less than twenty years. Given that public opinion in most members of the coalition has already turned against the mission, Kissinger is highly skeptical that we can bring to bear sufficient resources to get the job done, much less sustain it for the necessary timeframe.
If, after careful reassessment, we decide that we don’t have the staying power and other necessary capabilities to achieve the goal, then we "need a different strategy." He suggests that it will likely be one "designed to prevent what we fear most: the return of a terrorist state."
It should be noted that Kissigner is very much in favor of achieving our stated objective. As an American and an immigrant, he says it is "impossible" not to believe in democracy and the power of its ideology. But, alas, we must recognize the difference between our preferences and the national interest. Failure to align one’s policy goals to what is actually possible isn’t "idealism" but a recipe for failure.
Prescient as usual, there are few who would disagree with the great statesman’s assessment today. And the key point of this report, that we should focus our efforts on checking al Qaeda rather than nation-building, was prescribed by Kissinger that night. Doing that would also reduce our footprint, the Group’s second plank.
The first plank, though, strikes me as simultaneously unnecessary and contradictory. Regardless of our policy preferences, power in Afghanistan is already decentralized. Outside Kabul, Hamid Karzai is president in name only. While there’s value in simply accepting that fact, doing so will have little impact on the day-to-day governance of the society. But the "political reconciliation" half of the recommendation, which includes allowing the Taliban to enter into negotiations without any preconditions, could very well undermine the legitimacy of tribal leaders.
The fourth plank, as alluded to earlier, is both laudable and unlikely to amount to much. Giving Afghanistan most favored nation trading status is all well and good but what, exactly, is it that they’ve got to trade? Aside from opium, of course. The various micro-lending, "special reconstruction zones," and whatnot couldn’t hurt but are vulnerable to the same forces that have been undermining our development efforts the past nine years: endemic corruption and targeting by extremists who desperately want to stymie modernization efforts.
The fifth plank, engagement of global stakeholders, has been bandied about so much that it now amounts to throat clearing. Under the leadership of then-Chairman Jim Jones, the Atlantic Council was calling for such a comprehensive approach back in January of 2008. The passage of time, however, has rather clearly demonstrated that the regional stakeholders do not, in fact, have the same objectives. Indeed, because the United States is seen as the lead actor, many have a strong desire to see the mission fail.
None of this is meant to disparage the efforts of the Group. Following their recommendations would be a dramatic step in the right direction as compared to the current path of doubling down on a failed strategy. Simply calling what we have now "victory" and going home, while appealing, is not a viable option. So, perhaps putting the fig leafs of economic development and diplomatic solutions around a policy that starts us on the path to withdrawal is the only way forward. But we’re likely kidding ourselves if we believe our own rhetoric while doing it.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.