Our Current Strategy in Afghanistan Is Built on Strategic Myths

June 14, 2011 Topic: CounterinsurgencyFailed StatesSecurity Region: AfghanistanPakistan Blog Brand: The Skeptics

Our Current Strategy in Afghanistan Is Built on Strategic Myths

Terrorist safe havens and loose nukes are the strategic bogeymen justifying the war in Afghanistan.

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.

The second assumption is that losing the war in Afghanistan will destabilize Pakistan and put its nuclear forces at risk. According to this argument, failure against the Afghan Taliban will embolden militants across the border and weaken the Pakistani government. This argument is strikingly similar to the domino logic of the Cold War, which held that communist victories anywhere would inspire communist uprisings everywhere. But the modern version of the domino theory is particularly frightening because of Pakistan’s sizable nuclear weapons arsenal. According to the administration, “The ability of extremists in Pakistan to undermine Afghanistan is proven, while insurgency in Afghanistan feeds instability in Pakistan. The threat that al-Qaeda poses to the United States and our allies in Pakistan—including the possibility of extremists obtaining fissile material—is all too real.”

Despite such claims, the war in Afghanistan has little to do with the issue of nuclear terrorism. Pakistani militants, emboldened or not, have shown nothing like the sophistication needed to forcibly remove nuclear material from heavily guarded facilities. Recent suicide attacks on Pakistani military bases led to renewed concerns about the security of the arsenal, but the attacks themselves did not show that the Pakistani nuclear complex is vulnerable; they only showed that militants are willing to commit suicide. The fact that militants are aggressive does not mean that they are smart, and we shouldn’t fear them any more than we would fear bank robbers who die at the scene and never get away with any cash.

Analysts of the Pakistani nuclear program believe a more realistic concern is insider-outsider collusion. Growing radicalization and anti-American sentiment in the officer corps have led some observers to reasonably worry that some workers may clandestinely share nuclear material and know-how with extremists. Militants need not launch spectacular attacks in order to get their hands on nuclear weapons if they can reliably accumulate fissile material over time. Pakistan’s control of its nuclear materials is undoubtedly a serious concern, and the United States should continue quiet efforts to help it implement a recent series of personnel and procedural reforms meant to guarantee civilian oversight of the nuclear complex. But this problem will exist regardless of what happens in Afghanistan. U.S. officials should not continue to justify the war in terms of the threat of nuclear terrorism. The issues are unrelated.

Safe havens and loose nukes are the strategic bogeymen justifying the war in Afghanistan. Widely believed and rarely challenged in the foreign policy community, these misguided assumptions have justified an impractical strategy with predictably frustrating results. The death of bin Laden and the coming troop drawdown provide an important opportunity for strategic reassessment, and a chance to overcome the enduring myths of the war.