One of my great frustrations in becoming more involved in the debate over Afghanistan policy and the utility of population-centric counter-insurgency (COIN) theory is how ruthlessly the pro-escalation side of the debate has sought to caricature the position of the skeptics.
The choice has been portrayed as being between a full commitment to COIN or an immediate withdrawal and subsequent abandonment of Afghanistan. These are not the only choices. While I cannot speak for other skeptics of American policy in Afghanistan, I can at least sketch out what I believe would be a plausible alternative strategy.
First, I believe the United States should begin a relative rapid withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan. It is not that I don’t think they can be locally effective. It is just that I question the cost/benefit calculus of extending the commitment. I think that many supporters of escalation fail to consider to potential consequences if we do fail to achieve our goal of largely defeating the Taliban and pacifying Afghanistan. The longer we stay, the more likely we will be forced by public opinion to wholly abandon Afghanistan. Apologists for Richard Nixon have long argued that he negotiated a honorable peace in Vietnam that was later undermined by Congress’ unwillingness to tolerate a bombing campaign in support of the South when North Vietnam invaded in 1975. But the fact is that dragging out our commitment until 1973 was what made effective post-withdrawal assistance impossible. If Nixon had gotten us out in 1969, it is possible that enough residual public support for the war would have remained to allow us to continue to use air power in defense of our allies in South Vietnam. In short, the risks of staying until public support collapses completely are significant. The sooner we get our forces out, the more likely I believe we are to be able to sustain an active policy in support of the Karzai regime or a legitimate successor.
Second, we should offer the Afghan government a wide range of assistance as we depart and after. This should include generous development and military aid, offers to continue to train Afghan forces, mechanisms to share intelligence, diplomatic support, and even potentially some commitment of air power. All of these would need to be carefully considered and would come with significant conditions — for instance offers of close air support would require an acceptance by Afghan forces of significant training and agreement with restrictive rules regarding collateral damage. I believe that with this level of support, it is quite likely that the current government of Afghanistan would be able to hold off the Taliban indefinitely.
Third, if the worst case occurs and the Taliban — or some associated group or movement — did seize power we should credibly communicate our commitment to again remove them from power if they in any way tolerate the establishment of anti-American terrorist networks on their soil. This communication would need to occur in the context of a limited, but consistent policy of diplomatic engagement. Deterrence may not work, but it would be a mistake not to try.
Fourth, we should recommit to doing everything in our power to revolve tensions between India and Pakistan. Pakistan has legitimate security concerns regarding its neighbor and that gives Pakistan mixed motives in dealing with Islamist radicals. They are both a threat to Pakistan and a potential asset against India. As long as some in Pakistan see the existence of radical groups as a tool to use against India, it will be difficult to ever really control these movements. The road to peace in Afghanistan may well run through New Delhi.
Fifth, we should develop a policy to ensure the safety and well-being of the many Afghans who have chosen to support the United States in the years since 2001. We do have a moral obligation to the many men and women who might be at risk in the event of a return of the Taliban to power. Our response should include a generous asylum program, working with regional allies to manage refugees and ensure their integration into reliable host countries. The passage of a law like the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act should not be an after-thought, but part of a deliberate policy for the mitigation of the consequences of a potential return to power of a radical regime.
Sixth, the United States needs to continue to clarify the international legal obligations of states regarding terrorist groups operating from their soil. The right to intervene — either pre-emptively or in response to a terrorist attack — remains a murky area of law. This needs to be clarified to sharpen the red lines on state support for terrorism and to bolster deterrence.
There are certainly compelling arguments to be made against this approach, and in the final analysis after a fair debate it is possible that the majority of the policy community and the broader public would choose to support an escalation of the conflict. But we can’t have a fair debate until advocates of a deeper commitment to Afghanistan stop trying to paint skeptics as “cut-and-runners” who want to abandon Afghanistan as was done after 1992.