America's Exit Strategy for Afghanistan is Flawed

An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier keeps watch at the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

It is time for America to end a militarized process that had its inception with the reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan decades ago.

A peace component that guarantees western boundaries is a meaningful enticement to Pakistan, helping it meet the continuing eastern threat and address internal inequities. In return, a Pakistan that does not risk its strategic interests at home and in Afghanistan, will more willingly work with us constructively to avoid an “Iraq withdrawal” repeat with respect to ISIS, or the next incarnation of transnational militancy from Af-Pak bases. A demarcation recognized by peace treaty provides Pakistan with the boundary Afghanistan still refuses to accept. America’s guarantee, when linked to our limited security goal of preventing an enemy base, serves mutual security. Everything besides this zero tolerance U.S. goal is ultimately either conflation of means with end, collateral linkage, or “mission creep.” With President Trump’s goal redefinition in his speech last August, America’s additional security interests in the region were delinked by words, but not by deeds, including force projection; that divide is both a problem and a trading card for a solution.

The continuing perception of “imposed governance” that still fuels the “foreign invader” cycle of militant opposition, also allows existing supporters to resist compromise that threatens the privileges they enjoy without power sharing. America should remember President Kennedy’s cautionary admonition that it cannot send others the will to use arms we supply or to abide by democratic ideals. Adherence to this organizing principle requires American recognition that U.S. proxy does not have to rule Afghanistan to accomplish our core mission. Achieving peace in Afghanistan requires political inclusiveness; the U.S. price for Afghan self determination is effective self-policing.

That path may follow a devolution in power back to decentralized tribal orientation that prevailed historically. The tool to achieve it may be a variant on the Kissinger exit solution with North Vietnam, where a cease-fire in place recognized the power of arms where it prevailed. If such an approach is taken in Afghanistan there are two challenges: (i) avoiding the resurrection of warlords, and (ii) further descent into civil war—like Vietnam and Yemen, which failed to disarm. Af-Pak needs to follow the model of post-civil war practice in the Balkans and Lebanon, where demobilizing militias traded arms for cash. They funded their political wings and social security networks, on which power in developing civil society is often based. The lesson of putting arms to “another use”—even if America pays to verifiably put them “beyond use”—must be applied on both sides of the Durand line. It also highlights the need for fair participation in a supervised electoral process not conducted at gunpoint.

The United States should acknowledge there is room for diversity not only in democratic participation, but also in societal values in South Asia. In Afghanistan and along Pakistan’s western frontier, the price of diversity is to recognize that changing core values is a matter for self determination. The U.S. security interest in the battle for hearts and minds there is a task better spread over a multigenerational educational process. America’s moral aim should be targeted at financial support for public/private education curriculum reform to help the people themselves shape the mindset of their next generations. The Soviets too viewed education, particularly women’s liberation, as a lynchpin for societal change. They sought to impose it for decades—and failed as a result in both Central and South Asia. America need recognize it has neither generations to impose its values nor the capacity to do so. As President Kennedy sagely observed: “the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient . . . we cannot right every wrong or reverse every adversity . . . there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.”