Can We Win in Afghanistan?

President Obama’s campaign focus on Afghanistan as the just war we must win has had results. Not necessarily in Afghanistan, where things seem worse than ever, but in the press, where Afghanistan is the focus of increased scrutiny. Policy proscriptions are mixed, The Economist forcefully argued for staying the course:

The cost to NATO countries is immediately apparent: tens of billions of dollars and the lives of more than 1,200 soldiers. The cost of leaving is harder to measure but is probably larger: the return of the Taliban to power; an Afghan civil war; the utter destabilisation of nuclear-armed Pakistan; the restoration of al-Qaeda’s Afghan haven; the emboldening of every jihadist in the world; and the weakening of the West’s friends.

Our investment of blood and treasure would seem worth it to prevent that grim dystopian future, however, it is easy to combat straw men. We do not have to choose between abject failure and our huge present commitment, indeed I haven’t read anyone who is advocating abandoning Afghanistan. Rather, many reasonable people are starting to wonder if a larger military presence is the the best way to achieve our goals and what exactly are the priorities of the mission.

Rory Stewart lays out the contradiction of conflating a specific goal, counter-terrorism, with a grand method, nation building, in an essential essay:

Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security.

The question at some point becomes: do we have an obligation to Afghanistan to create a stable state, or do only have the right and responsibility to ensure our own security? If it is the former, and David Kilcullen argues that we have a moral obligation to Afghanistan on Fareed Zakaria’s last show, then the strategy being pursued now at least is consistent with our goals. However, it seems unlikely that the American public, or the European and Canadian publics, have any interest in building a stable Afghanstan for its own sake. “You broke it, you buy it” held true in Iraq, where we did not have international legitimacy for our war and thousands were dying weekly, but Afghanistan was a war of necessity. As we close in the length of time that the Soviet Union spent there, perhaps it is time to find a new way forward.

Foreign Affairs cover story this issue as about one important strategy, paying the Taliban to switch sides in the war. The U.S. is already working to prevent Taliban recruitment through prison reform, so a non-standard approach to weakening the insurgency is not without president. Andrew Bacevich made the similar point on Fareed Zakaria’s program, that the Iraqi surge strategy is being copied in Afghanistan, only without the key component of co-opting the hostile populations. It is odd that Obama, who always downplayed John McCain’s support for the surge by pointing to the importance of the Sunni Awakening, would then implement a strategy in Afghanistan that ignored that key element. Afghanistan has a long history of commanders changing sides in order to ensure that they end up with the winners, in fact the fall of the government that led to the Taliban rise to power was only accomplished when an Afgan General, Abdul Dostam, defected to the mujahideen. It is much, much cheaper to pay forces to switch sides (approximately $30 million dollars a month, ~400 million a year, according to Foreign Affairs) than to create the 450,000 strong police force that U.S. Generals advocate (which would cost eight to ten times as much at 2 to 3 billion a year, from Stewart). Plus, it is a strategy that kills two birds with one stone, since the warlords are paid to secure their areas against terrorists rather than having to pay an army to attack the warlords.

It should also be examined whether the Taliban poses a credible threat to the country at large, and whether anything like 90,000 troops is necessary to prevent their return to power. Could half that number do the job? Could even far less, primarily consisting of intelligence officers and special forces, prevent Al-Queda from ever setting up a base in Afghanistan?

Rory Stewart lays out the point succinctly:

The presence of Nato special forces, the challenging logistical and political conditions in Afghanistan and lack of technological capacity, are likely to impede al-Qaeda in Afghanistan from posing a significant threat to UK or US national security. Instead development in South Asia should remain the key strategic priority for the UK government in the region.

In a world with limited resources, and seemingly unlimited problems it is unnecessary, and perhaps impossible, to “win” in Afghanistan. It is an extremely poor country, with very little history of central government, that has never been occupied to any foreign countries gain. We should provide generous amounts of developmental aid to Afghanistan, because we will get a good return on our investment, and never completely leave it to its own devices again, but much beyond that is foolish to the point of immorality.

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One Response to Can We Win in Afghanistan?

  1. […] I talked about Afghanistan three weeks ago, debate has really started to heat up.  The article that prompted my post, Rory Stewart’s […]

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