On September 10, 2009, Matthew Hoh resigned from his post as the senior State Department official in the Zabul Province of Afghanistan.  In his resignation letter, he wrote in part,

I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan. . . . Our forces, devoted and faithful, have been committed to conflict in an indefinite and unplanned manner that has become a cavalier, politically expedient and Pollyannaish misadventure. . . . Success and victory, whatever they may be, will be realized not in years, after billions more spent, but in decades and generations.

In his penultimate paragraph, Hoh notes, “We are mortgaging our Nation’s economy on a war, which, even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years to come.”

The Obama plan, unveiled December 1, 2009, after months of deliberation, answered few of the concerns expressed in Hoh’s letter.  The President announced, “as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.”  However, the national interest has an expiration date: The troops will begin to return home after 18 months.  Leaders in the United States and abroad are questioning Obama’s strategy for a “war of necessity” that requires a complex political, social, and military situation to be resolved in such a short period.  “A withdrawal date only emboldens Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while dispiriting our Afghan partners and making it less likely that they will risk their lives to take our side in this fight,” said Sen. John McCain.  Hamid Karzai’s chief policy advisor stated, “We couldn’t solve the Afghanistan problem in eight years, but now the U.S. wants to solve it in 18 months?”

President Obama anticipated such criticism:

The absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government.  It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

He concluded, “America—we are passing through a time of great trial.  And the message we send in the midst of these storms must be clear: that our cause is just, our resolve unwavering.”

The Obama plan is a carefully brokered response to the alarming assessment that the President received in August from his handpicked commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.  McChrystal began his report by noting, “many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating.”  He identified two primary threats to our success: “We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans—in both their government and the international community—that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents.”

McChrystal detailed what success under Obama’s original plan, which the President had announced on March 27, 2009, would require.  The “new strategy” consisted of a counterinsurgency and a balance of military, political, and civic actions in Afghanistan, while providing support for Pakistan’s efforts to fight the Taliban in the tribal regions, stabilizing Pakistan’s government by “assisting efforts to enhance civilian control,” and developing “a vibrant economy that provides opportunity for the people of Pakistan.”  McChrystal’s bottom line was that Obama’s counterinsurgency plan was not feasible with the 20,000 troops and limited resources that Obama had dedicated to it.  Success would require an additional 40,000 troops and a commitment to a long-term strategy that protected the population from the insurgents, overhauled the corrupt and ineffective Karzai government, and eliminated Al Qaeda’s safe haven in Pakistan.

The new Obama plan is the product of political hedging.  It reiterates the goals of the original plan but limits the time in which to execute it.  The U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manual warns that success “requires a firm political will and substantial patience by the government, its people, and the countries providing support.”  Obama’s new plan gives General McChrystal some of the assets he needs to succeed, while providing Obama with a conveniently timed exit strategy.  A politically motivated strategy may be good for his reelection, but it is bad for the chances of U.S. success in Afghanistan.

During the presidential campaign Obama pledged to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, calling it a distraction from the main threat, which he later identified in Time: “The central front is in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It is unacceptable that almost seven years after 9/11, those responsible for the attacks remain at large.  If another attack on our homeland occurs, it will likely come from this same region where 9/11 was planned.”  Including Pakistan is a start in crafting a workable U.S. policy in Central Asia.  The administration’s “new policy” hinted at the real reason the United States is concerned with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan: “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.”  The success of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the efforts to establish a government in Islamabad that is capable and willing to assist.  U.S. aid to Pakistan is linked to Pakistan’s success in her fight against the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

Pakistan’s interests have traditionally not been aligned with U.S. goals.  Islamabad nominally supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but the Taliban originated in Pakistan and received support from the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence service.  Hamid Karzai is viewed as an ally of India, which is a threat to Pakistan.  Pakistan maintains a large concentration of troops on the border with India and faces her own internal problems with radical Islamists.  Taliban fighters in the frontier region that limit their activities to Afghanistan are not only not a priority for Pakistan; they actually serve her purposes.  The New York Times reported that the S Wing of the ISI, responsible for operations outside of Pakistan, provided “money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance for Taliban commanders” as recently as March 2009, “months after Pakistani officials said that the days of the ISI playing a ‘double game’ had ended.”  When the United States leaves Afghanistan, Pakistan fears she will be left facing enemies to her west and east.  Attaching conditions to funding is not enough to persuade Pakistan to sever her ties with the Taliban if the U.S. political will lasts only until July 2011.  The signal to Pakistan is clear: The United States is leaving after a last-ditch effort to stabilize Afghanistan.

The range of choices Obama considered was slowly revealed to the American public through carefully controlled statements and a series of unauthorized leaks.  First, McChrystal’s report in August and his speech a month later at the Institute for Strategic Studies in London outlined the requirements for a counterinsurgency centered on defeating the Taliban and stabilizing the fledgling Afghan government.  McChrystal conceded that this strategy will likely mean more short-term casualties, but in the long term it will be more likely to succeed if troop levels are increased and it is properly funded.

Second, Vice President Joe Biden proposed a limited counterterrorism approach that focused on hunting down Al Qaeda and largely ignoring the Taliban.  A counterterrorist operation could be accomplished using drones, aircraft, and small numbers of special-operations troops.  This approach would likely be viewed as abandoning Afghanistan, and the embryonic Afghan government would almost certainly collapse under the pressure.  General McChrystal has referred to this strategy as “Chaosistan.”

Third, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eik­en­berry, opposed the deployment of additional troops to the region.  Eiken­berry, a former Army lieutenant general who previously held McChrystal’s position, argued that more troops would simply further Afghanistan’s dependence on the United States.

Contrary to Obama’s claims of more transparency in government, his deliberations on Afghanistan were, in large part, conducted behind closed doors.  Leaks about the strategy discussions angered the administration, while Congress has gladly left the decisionmaking to an indecisive Commander in Chief.  In October Sen. John McCain proposed an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would have required McChrystal to testify concerning the counterinsurgency plan.  The amendment was voted down by the Democrats, even though, in September 2007, they had demanded that General Petraeus testify concerning the rationale for the surge in Iraq.

The undeclared war has not been debated in Congress since September 2001.  The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the basis for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, is a one-page document that permits military action “against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.”  In his report, McChrystal provided, in typical military language, the mission of the U.S.-dominated International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF):

ISAF, in support of [the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan], conducts operations in Afghanistan to reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development, in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.

Most Americans would agree that McChrystal’s understanding of his mission in Afghanistan is beyond the scope of the AUMF.

The administration’s long delay in announcing its new strategy has, at least, highlighted the shortcomings of the Bush administration’s attempt to plant a democracy overnight in a country that has been devastated by three decades of war.  The broader question of whether Afghanistan is capable of becoming a functioning state, let alone a functioning democracy, has intentionally been stifled within the United States.  Afghanistan has a long history of foreign incursions that have resulted in defeat, earning her the title “graveyard of empires.”  The British, for most of the 19th century, tried to control Afghanistan during the “Great Game.”  They invaded and installed a friendly dictator who depended on the British military for legitimacy.  The Afghans revolted and massacred all but a handful of the 16,000 British troops and civilians as they retreated east to India.  In 1979 the Russians invaded in a similar effort to prop up the communist government of Babrak Karmal.  The mujahideen fought the Russians with support from Pakistan, the United States, and Saudi Arabia.  Their guerilla tactics slowly wore down the Russian military and the Kremlin’s political will.  After ten years of bloody combat, the Russians left Afghanistan, soundly defeated.

The problems Afghanistan faces cannot be overstated: intertribal fighting; a corrupt and ineffective gov­ernment; a devastated infrastructure; a growing insurgency; meddling from Pakistan, India, Russia, and Iran; and an economy fueled by the illegal opium trade.  The Afghan insurgency consists primarily of the remnants of the Taliban that fled to Pakistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001.  The tribal areas along Afghanistan’s border have become a new safe haven for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, from which (according to McChrystal’s report) they “channel foreign fighters, suicide bombers, and technical assistance into Afghanistan, and offer ideological motivation, training, and financial assistance.”  The insurgents rarely engage ISAF forces in conventional battles.  They ambush patrols, mine roads with increasingly more sophisticated IEDs, and use other unconventional tactics.  The insurgents are not limited by time, political will, or a lack of resources.  Many perfected their techniques against the Soviets and realized that the United States does not have the stomach for a long-term war that produces a steady stream of casualties.

To counter these threats, troops patrol villages, search homes, and interrogate locals in an effort to root out the enemy.  These tactics are like using a butter knife to perform surgery.  Special road-clearing units spend hours each day securing routes in heavily armored vehicles.  One IED, which may cost $20 to produce, can destroy a $1 million armored vehicle and wound troops and civilians.  As soon as the soldiers leave the area, the Taliban return to punish cooperative villagers or place another IED.  Without the resources that McChrystal requested, the United States will be forced either to continue these ineffective tactics or to concede large areas of Afghanistan to the insurgents.

The insurgency, says McChrystal, “actively seeks to control the population and displace the national government.”  In pursuit of these goals, the Taliban has established a competing “shadow government”—the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.  The shadow government has been enabled by the failure of the national government to deliver services to the rural parts of the country.  It has appointed governors for most provinces, established a body to receive complaints, installed sharia courts, and levied taxes, and it claims to “provide security against a corrupt government, ISAF forces, criminality, and local power brokers.”

McChrystal’s strategy hinted at, but did not explicitly state, an element critical to the success of any counterinsurgency: The government must be viewed as legitimate by the population.  Hamid Karzai was reelected to a second five-year term in November only after his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, refused to participate in a runoff, stating that a “transparent election is not possible.”  The results of the election were undermined by allegations of massive voter fraud and intimidation along with low turnout.

Karzai’s reelection was business as usual for a government fraught with corruption.  Transparency International recently ranked Afghanistan as the world’s second-most-corrupt country.  Bribes to police, judges, and bureaucrats are accepted as the cost of doing business.  The most common form of corruption is also the most damaging.  Mushkil tarashi, the withholding of government services (such as healthcare, education, and electricity) until a bribe is paid, is often the only interaction citizens have with their national government.  The majority of Afghans see a return to strict sharia as the only viable solution.

Karzai acknowledges that officials at the highest levels of government are involved in corruption: “All the politicians in this country have acquired everything—money, lots of money . . . the banks of the world are full of money of our statesmen.”  The New York Times recently reported that Kabul’s police chief, Mohammed Ayub Salangi, was renting his extravagant mansion (complete with Greek columns and a towering fountain) in the posh Sherpur neighborhood for $11,000 per month—approximately his annual salary.  Legitimacy, in the face of such visible and open corruption, is hopeless.

In the Wall Street Journal, Pervez Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan, stated that the United States had a “golden opportunity to rescue the Afghan people” after liberating them from the “tyranny of al Qaeda and the Taliban.”  The United States “had the unequivocal support of the majority of Afghans.”  But the opportunity was missed.  This may be the second and final opportunity to bring stability to Afghanistan.

President Obama should be willing to consider sending additional troops to Afghanistan if McChrystal needs them, and he must commit to success in Afghanistan and not limit the military’s involvement to 18 months.  In the absence of one of the three prongs of a counterinsurgency (military support, legitimacy, and training the host country’s military and police to take over the effort), the entire operation will fail.  The United States should pressure Afghanistan to return to a more parliamentary-style government.  The Afghan constitution, drafted only 13 months after the Taliban was overthrown, contributes to the endemic corruption and instability.  McChrystal’s report states that Afghan communities, which have a long tradition of local community governance, are “unable to hold local officials accountable through either direct elections or judicial processes, especially when those individuals are protected by senior government officials.”  A parliamentary system was considered by the Constitutional Loya Jirga (the grand council that drafted the constitution) but was rejected, after lobbying by Karzai with U.S. support, in favor of a strong presidential system with a highly centralized administration.  The parliamentary system is more closely related to the traditional loya jirga.  Musharraf correctly noted, “Afghanistan for centuries has been governed loosely through a social covenant between all the ethnic groups, under a sovereign king.  This structure is needed again to bring peace and harmony.”

Finally, Obama needs to address adequately the source of many of Afghanistan’s problems: Pakistan.  The insurgency continues because of Pakistan’s disinterest in controlling her border regions.  If Pakistan continues to offer safe haven to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the United States should either expand the military mission to include the frontier regions and deal with the foreign-relations fallout from a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, or dramatically reduce the U.S. presence.

Matthew Hoh closed his letter on a somber note: “The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured that their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept.  I have lost confidence such assurances can anymore be made.”  The Obama plan, a political compromise, assures that without substantial change, our troops will continue making the ultimate sacrifice for a mission that their Commander in Chief knows is unwinnable.