The Skeptics

Our Current Strategy in Afghanistan Is Built on Strategic Myths

This is a guest post by Joshua Rovner, assistant professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College. He is coauthor, along with Austin Long, of “Dominoes on the Durand Line? Overcoming Strategic Myths in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” from which the post is adapted. The opinions here do not necessarily represent the views of the Naval War College, the Navy, or the Department of Defense.

America’s strategy in Afghanistan has become incoherent. Among other problems, it is based on two questionable assumptions which large swaths of the foreign policy community take for granted. Both are wrong.

The first assumption is that withdrawing large numbers of U.S. forces will enable al-Qaeda to reclaim a safe haven in southern Afghanistan. We must not, we are told, allow the disciples of Osama bin Laden rebuild the sanctuary that al-Qaeda enjoyed in the 1990s. The Obama administration’s May 2010 National Security Strategy was quite clear: “In Afghanistan, we must deny al-Qaida a safe haven, deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the government, and strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.” Events over the last year, including the killing of Osama bin Laden, have not alleviated the fear that al-Qaeda might return in force. Just last week Ryan Crocker, the president’s choice for ambassador to Afghanistan, reminded Senators during his confirmation hearing that the goal of U.S. strategy is to improve the strength and competence of the Kabul government so that the country does not “degenerate into a safe-haven for al-Qaeda.”

But there is little chance that al-Qaeda can find a safe haven in Afghanistan, and there is not much reason why it should want one. Al-Qaeda was a peculiar creature of the 1990s: a large, well-funded, well-organized and fanatical organization dedicated to a bizarre world view and committed to killing large numbers of Americans. Al-Qaeda not only benefited from its wealth but the Taliban’s poverty; Mullah Omar was eager to host al-Qaeda not just because of ideological affinity but also because bin Laden was able to use his personal fortune to bankroll the government. Meanwhile the United States was not terribly enthusiastic about military operations in Afghanistan beyond a few desultory Tomahawk missile strikes.

The situation today is much different. Al-Qaeda’s original leaders are mostly dead or incarcerated, its former organization has been demolished, and it no longer has a willing partner in Kabul. The United States has also demonstrated that it has no compunction about attacking al-Qaeda outposts. Indeed, military commanders would surely relish the opportunity to strike large fixed targets in Afghanistan without having to deal with the messy politics of cross-border raids into Pakistan.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration seems to believe that the Afghan safe-haven is a realistic concern and that state-building is the only antidote. It has continued to invest in well-meaning efforts at strengthening governance and the Afghan economy, wasting enormous amounts of time and money in the process. Making matters worse, the administration appears to misunderstand what state-building really means. Constructing a sustainable and effective government is not a matter of training technocrats and winning legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Instead, state-building is a typically a long and bloody competition for power, and a successful state must ultimately be able to compel obedience from the people. As Paul Staniland correctly notes, “We may think we can ‘win hearts and minds’ while establishing a strong state, but state formation is intrinsically about coercion and dominance.”

Happily, the United States does not need to become mired in the bloody business of Afghanistan’s political evolution. The argument for building a strong Afghan state rests on the fear that a weak one will enable al-Qaeda to rebuild its safe-haven. But this fear is wildly exaggerated, meaning that the United States can abandon the quixotic state-building effort and pursue a much more practical counterterrorism campaign.