Paul Pillar

A Rethink of Afghanistan

An event Wednesday at the New America Foundation provided the formal launch of a report titled A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan, prepared by an informal grouping of policy analysts, academics, and other interested persons calling themselves the Afghanistan Study Group.  (I have been a part of the group.) The report, and the discussions that led to it, are a recognition that U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and much of the discourse concerning that policy have lost sight of what is, or is not, at stake in Afghanistan. The policy and the discourse also have lost sight of any comparison of the costs and benefits of waging a continued counterinsurgency there.

The counterinsurgency, with its goals of defeating the Afghan Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan, has come to be treated as if it were an end in itself.  It is not an end in itself. It is the result of a nine-year-long mission creep that has accompanied a deterioration of security conditions in Afghanistan, which in turn has accompanied the nine-year military presence there. It represents a major displacement from the original reason for a military intervention in 2001, which was to roust Al Qaeda from its Afghan home and to oust from power its then-allies in the Taliban.

The report primarily addresses the disconnect between the stated rationale of protecting Americans from terrorism and the actual operational objectives of nation-building and defeating the Afghan Taliban. The conflict in Afghanistan is commonly perceived as a struggle between the Karzai government and an insurgent Taliban movement allied with international terrorists. In fact, it is a civil war over who will have what share of power in Afghanistan, with complicated lines of contention that include ethnic, sectarian, and urban-rural elements.

 A U.S. military victory over the Taliban is not necessary to protect U.S. interests, for several reasons that the report addresses. The Taliban itself is not an international terrorist group; it is a rural insurgency that is interested in the political and social order in Afghanistan.  Al Qaeda is barely in Afghanistan at all. Even if given the opportunity to return to Afghanistan, it is not apparent that Al Qaeda would see a net advantage in doing so, given the availability of other areas of operation.  Even if it wanted to return, it is doubtful that even a victorious Afghan Taliban would want it back, given what happened to the Taliban the last time it hosted the group.  Even if Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group attempted to reestablish a presence anything like what it had prior to 2001, it would, unlike before 2001, quickly become the target of liberal use of U.S. airpower to destroy it.

And even if some sort of haven were to be established in Afghanistan, a physical haven simply is not one of the more important assets that determines the degree of threat that any group poses to the U.S. or to the West. Certainly any difference from the threat Al Qaeda would be posing anyway does not come close to offsetting the immense costs the U.S. is sustaining in Afghanistan.

Although much of the report focuses on this disconnect between rationale and operational objective, the report addresses several other dimensions as well.  One is the dim prospect for success even if one accepts the counterinsurgency on its own terms. The nature of counterinsurgency suggests that creating a unified and reasonably stable Afghanistan would require many more American lives and hundreds of billions of additional U.S. dollars for many years to come. The effort does not have the cooperation of Pakistan, which continues to provide support to the Afghan Taliban as an instrument of influence and hedge against events there.  Even more important, the effort does not have an non-corrupt Afghan government with the potential for obtaining much greater legitimacy than it does now.

Another dimension addressed is the counterproductive nature of much of what the United States is doing in Afghanistan, while recognizing the stated purpose of keeping Americans safe from terrorism. We have, through what has become an increasingly unpopular military occupation, been creating enemies more rapidly than friends. Much of the motivation for Taliban recruits has to do with resisting foreign occupation. Our presence also encourages closer cooperation among a disparate array of extremist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan alike. Even more broadly, resentment over our military presence in Afghanistan is increasing the resonance of extremist propaganda, lending credibility to the extremist narrative, and inspiring others, including even in the United States, to turn to terrorism.

A final dimension addressed is the immense cost of this expedition, including not only the tragic human cost but monetary expenditures costing U.S. taxpayers nearly $100 billion per year. This is economically damaging, all the more so given the current state of public finances. It represents a huge opportunity cost. And it calls into question nearly all the supposed benefits of the expedition, each of which must be measured according to whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

The report posits not a specific detailed proposal but instead a redirection of policy, in several respects. Not everyone who has participated in the study group or even signed on to the report would agree with everything that is suggested in the report. But there was general agreement with the recommended general changes in emphasis and direction.

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