Democrats Send Message on Afghanistan

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee questioned the effectiveness of the Afghan counterinsurgency strategy.

With the Obama Administration facing calls by an increasing number of lawmakers in the United States Congress to accelerate the drawdown of combat forces from Afghanistan this summer, White House officials have been stung by another bout of bad news on the war.

After a two year investigation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, including field reports, interviews and budget assessments, the committee has released its own assessment of the effectiveness of American civilian aid programs in the Afghan conflict. Although the the report was a long 51 pages, one needs only to read the executive summary to determine that the administration’s civilian strategy in Afghanistan, according to Democratic staff members, is not having much of an effect on the country’s overall progression. In the words of the report, “the evidence that stabilization programs promote stability in Afghanistan is limited.”

Such a public rebuke may not be earth shattering when taking into account Afghanistan’s war ravaged society. Afghans have been living their lives the best they can in the middle of a warzone for the past thirty years, first with the Soviet invasion and occupation in the 1980s, the Afghan civil war of the 1990s and finally the US/NATO international coalition in the 2000s. It is difficult to support your family when bullets fly above your head on a near daily basis. And while the Afghan economy has been growing since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001, many in Washington expected that productivity to be higher than it is today.

The Obama Administration says that the Afghan economy has grown by 10 percent annually over the past few years, but most of that growth has been kicked off by donations from the United States and the international community. Most Afghans live not in Kabul but in the countryside where farming is the predominate mode of earning. Scientists only recently discovered a large supply of minerals and until they are extracted and the violence subsides to a tolerable level, investors will have a difficult time convincing themselves that they should be putting money in an unstable area.

The report is significant not for its findings, which most analysts on the ground have written about for years, but for its criticism of a Democratic government by a Democratic majority staff on one of Congress’ most powerful committees. If it were Republicans conducting the investigation, the results of the report could be tainted by the White House as a partisan attack on a Democratic president seeking to wind down America’s military commitment in the Afghan war. Yet it was the president’s own party that did all of the legwork over the last two years, making the conclusions even more disturbing for the president’s Afghanistan team. In fact, the report was so dispiriting that the authors explicitly questioned the merits of counterinsurgency, the very strategy that the military is relying on to conduct the war.

The criticism is significant not only because President Barack Obama depends on the counterinsurgency doctrine for his current policy, but because the entire military command has used the past five years to weld the “hearts and minds” approach into its strategic playbook. The Army and Marine Corps in particular place far more of an emphasis on protecting the population and winning the trust of locals than on traditional war fighting. Pouring money into American aid agencies, building indigenous governing capacity at the local, provincial and national levels and enrolling war weary civilians into schools is 50 percent of the work. While the report only concentrates on Afghanistan, its language challenges the entire population centric, or COIN, notion of war.

With Robert Gates, a prominent COIN supporter, retiring from his post as defense secretary and Leon Panetta replacing him, the “whole of government” approach that the Obama White House has been following in Afghanistan may be at the beginning of being reevaluated. The report’s release, mere days before the president is set to announce his decision about how many troops to withdraw, should not be seen as a coincidence. Congress is tired of funding the war ($100 billion a year in military spending alone) and it is sending a loud message to the president that the withdrawal should be substantial.