The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for more than eight years. That is longer than our involvement in both world wars combined. Yet the end of the conflict appears to be further away than ever. It is not even clear what would constitute victory.
Afghanistan began as the “good war,” receiving near-unanimous backing in the United States and similar support in Europe. The objectives were clear: weaken or destroy Al Qaeda, which had attacked America; oust the Taliban, which had given Al Qaeda refuge; warn other regimes that cooperating with terrorists would leave them out of power.
The United States quickly achieved all these objectives. Al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. It is not certain that Osama bin Laden is still alive; much of the organization’s leadership has been killed. Al Qaeda now appears to be mostly effective as an inspiration to other jihadist groups. Moreover, Afghanistan is largely irrelevant to Al Qaeda’s operations. National Security Advisor Jim Jones recently claimed that there are only 100 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and that they have “no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.” The underwear bomber, linked to Nigeria and Yemen, illustrates the limited relevance of Afghanistan to terrorism these days.
The United States also succeeded in driving the Taliban from power. Whatever happens in the future, Washington punished the regime that hosted Al Qaeda. Even if the Taliban returns to power in some provinces or in Kabul, many Taliban leaders appear less than well disposed to an organization that misused their hospitality and caused their ouster. Even a victorious Taliban is likely to be a chastened Taliban, hesitant to host terrorists seeking to strike America.
Finally, the United States has sent a very clear message to any other regime tempted to aid anti-American terrorists: Do so at your peril. Washington might not have the knowledge, wisdom, or commitment to spread democracy, impose liberal values, and otherwise transform society, but we still can and will punish any government foolish enough to assist those who attack us.
Having met these objectives, Washington could have withdrawn, demonstrating how (limited) military action can effectively combat terrorism. Such an outcome would have yielded a more secure America, although not necessarily a more democratic Afghanistan.
The intervening eight years have not been cheap. The conflict has consumed roughly 900 U.S. and 600 allied lives and cost about $220 billion, with nearly another $100 billion budgeted for this year alone, inflated by President Obama’s ongoing escalation. The Afghan people, too, have suffered greatly, with tens of thousands of dead and injured civilians.
The return on this investment has been poor. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the situation in Afghanistan is “deteriorating.” Taliban attacks on allied forces are up; secure areas are down. The Afghan government exercises little control over most of the country. The most vibrant industry may be drugs, which fund friends, including high government officials, and foes alike. Vote-rigging by President Hamid Karzai wrecked any pretension that we are promoting democracy.
So what now?
A narrow focus on counterterrorism would be no cakewalk, but it might be achievable at a reasonable cost. This approach would accept that Afghanistan is a tragically fractured land, poor and at war. The embarrassing Karzai government could be accepted with equanimity. After all, if Mr. Ten Percent can be president of the far more important nation of Pakistan, Mr. Dubious Democracy can reign in Kabul.
The United States could look for a political accommodation, with some mixture of Taliban and local warlords willing to deny Al Qaeda sanctuary. The bulk of American forces could be withdrawn over time. Should terrorists attempt to return to Afghanistan, use of Special Forces and drones in combination with friendly local forces could minimize their effectiveness.
Terrorism will never disappear, but focusing on counterterrorism might at least thwart future terrorist attacks. Said President Obama when he announced his Afghan policy, “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda . . . ”
Still, nation-building seems to beckon U.S. policymakers. In March 2009, the President agreed to send another 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, explaining, “For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people—especially women and girls.”
A Taliban victory would be bad for the Afghan people, but so far America’s attempt to establish nirvana in Kabul, let alone the rest of the country, has fallen far short. Malalai Joya, a woman oft-threatened by traditionalists for running for parliament, has complained, “Your governments have replaced the fundamentalist rule of the Taliban with another fundamentalist regime of warlords.” But should defeating the Taliban be Washington’s business?
While there are many reasons to sympathize with the Afghan people, humanitarian sentiments do not constitute our national interest. David Ignatius of the Washington Post criticized those who would adopt “a more selfish counterterrorism strategy that drops the rebuilding part,” but it is easy to be generous with other people’s lives when you are fighting from your office chair in your ivory tower. The lives and wealth of Americans should not be sacrificed for costly grand crusades irrelevant to American security.
Some believe that Washington needs to finish the job it began in Afghanistan. Masuda Sultan of Women for Afghan Women argued, “We have a moral obligation to continue to follow through for Afghan women who have put themselves at risk over the last eight years.”
Foreign intervention no doubt encourages other peoples to count on the U.S. government, often with costly consequences. However, that does not turn foreign social engineering into a U.S. priority. There is a good argument for welcoming to America those who have risked their lives on her behalf; Iraqi translators come to mind. But this is not the first time, unfortunately, that foreign peoples have shared the unrealistic hopes of U.S. policymakers to transform impoverished, traditional, and war-ravaged societies into free and prosperous countries.
Finally, what of the means about which the President spoke? If fixing Afghanistan is America’s goal, is it possible to achieve? And at what cost?
Here the President’s policy most obviously breaks down. Killing terrorists is easy compared to remaking societies.
Unfortunately, it appears that the administration has taken the worst path possible. Instead of folding or going all in, it is attempting to stay in the game with a slight escalation. General McChrystal wanted at least 40,000 additional troops; President Obama agreed to 30,000. Depending on how many the Europeans actually contribute—undoubtedly fewer than they have promised—the United States and her allies will have around 125,000 personnel in Afghanistan, a country of 33 million people scattered among thousands of villages, many located in forbidding mountainous or otherwise desolate terrain. That is not nearly enough.
Traditional counterinsurgency doctrine indicates that about 660,000 troops are needed. The Soviets ultimately deployed 118,000 troops, too few to impose Moscow’s will. The NATO nations initially used 60,000 soldiers to garrison Bosnia—after all fighting had ceased in that much smaller and less populous land.
Despite all of that, could the Obama administration’s policy somehow work? Most analysts who advocate an increased effort in Afghanistan believe that we must start with an effective regime in Kabul.
Rahm Emanuel spoke of creating “a credible Afghan partner for this process that can provide the security and the type of services that the Afghan people need.” Former Defense Department official Marin Strmecki argued for establishing “an effective and representative government.” The Center for American Progress issued a report advocating “a national representative government that is able to govern, defend, and sustain itself.”
One cannot say, given the range of human experience, that such an objective is unachievable. However, the likelihood of success seems slim at best.
Afghanistan has often been called the “graveyard of empires”—a cliché, perhaps, but foreign powers have never successfully ruled the Afghan people. While internal conflict is not inevitable, any central government must, like the mid-20th-century Afghan monarchy, understand and respect both the decentralized, traditional nature of Afghan society and the sharp limits on its own power.
Intervention from outside, even by a power with greater understanding of and respect for local cultures than the United States, is inevitably more difficult. Afghanistan is made up of 20 often antagonistic ethnic groups. The dominant Pashtuns are divided into 50 tribes. While many urban people seek modernity, many other Afghans remain hostile to outsiders, especially foreigners carrying guns. Three decades of war have profoundly afflicted Afghan society.
Some advocates of war appear to believe that what is desirable must, by definition, be practical. Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations argued,
Poor governance is an argument for, not against, a troop surge. Only by sending more personnel, military and civilian, can President Obama improve the Afghan government’s performance, reverse the Taliban’s gains and prevent Al Qaeda’s allies from regaining the ground they lost after 9/11.
Boot’s claim is curious, to put it politely. Having failed to create an effective government and suppress insurgents after eight years of war, Washington must do more of the same, Boot says, in the hope of achieving a different result. Maybe escalation is the only way, in theory, in which the Obama administration can improve the performance of the Karzai regime. But theories do not always work in practice.
This is no knock on America’s forces. Matthew Hoh, a former Marine who resigned from the State Department after spending time in Afghanistan, contended that no “military force has ever been tasked with such a complex, opaque and Sisyphean mission as the U.S. military has received in Afghanistan.”
Liberty, prosperity, democracy, and stability may eventually come to Afghanistan, but only through the efforts of the Afghan people. Any system imposed from outside is bound to have limited credibility, stability, and longevity.
Washington should adjust its policy ends and military means. Its principal objective should be protecting Americans. That means cooperating with friendly local forces, utilizing Special Forces, employing limited drone and air strikes, drying up terrorist funding, sharing intelligence, and otherwise cooperating with friendly states. It does not mean building states and nations where none exist.
In 2002 Illinois state senator Barack Obama warned against fighting a war “without a clear rationale and without strong international support,” and argued that an invasion of Iraq would yield “a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, and with unintended consequences.” Unfortunately, that appears to be the current scenario in Afghanistan.
President Obama still has time to reconsider his course. If he does not, Afghanistan is likely to define his presidency as Iraq does that of George W. Bush and Vietnam that of Lyndon B. Johnson.
This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.