Ditch Nation Building and Go After Al Qaeda

As counterinsurgency in Afghanistan appears to be failing, one group recommends changing the war’s priorities.

You don’t need to be genius to recognize that the war in Afghanistan is going much worse than people would have predicted a year ago. At a time of immense economic trouble at home, more and more Americans are wondering whether the fight was even worth it in the first place. A remarkable question as we pass the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Afghans themselves aren’t particularly pleased with foreign troops on their soil either. A recent poll study shows that 68 percent of Afghans in Helmand and Kandahar provinces don’t think NATO is protecting the population. 70 percent in the Taliban heartland blame American and NATO armed forces for making the lives of Afghans worse. An astounding 99 percent in Marjah are equally convinced that the foreign military presence is contributing to instability. Those aren’t good numbers when the whole essence of NATO strategy is to gradually wean Afghans away from the Taliban.

But if you don’t need to be a genius to figure this, you don’t necessarily need to be smart to recommend a change in US strategy either. Just ask any of the pundits on television and they will tell you that America is heading for failure in Afghanistan. But ask them what exactly the White House should do to change course, they get a little starry eyed and resort to the same “Obama doesn’t get it” argument.

So it’s refreshing to see that some people are actually working hard to conduct an alternative strategy. A report (PDF) from the Afghanistan Study Group is a worthy illustration. Granted, the report is long and the content can get a bit overwhelming, but each recommendation is well founded and based on facts instead of mere assumptions. (If you don’t care to read the entire thing, do be sure to read the summary.)

Without getting into the details of the report, the authors essentially make the argument that Washington can no longer afford to sustain a fully resourced counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. It costs $100 billion a year just to fund it; it claims the lives of dozens of American soldiers (66 in July alone), and it is increasingly transforming into a twenty-first version of Vietnam. Or, to put it in the words of the report itself, “Prospects for success are dim. The 2010 spring offensive in Marjah was inconclusive, and a supposedly ‘decisive’ summer offensive in Kandahar has been delayed and the expectations downgraded. American and allied casualties reached an all time high in July, and several NATO allies have announced plans to withdraw their own forces.” Doesn’t sound very good, does it?

Instead, the authors believe that the president should reverse course and ditch the entire concept of counterinsurgency altogether. If defeating Al Qaeda is America’s central objective in Afghanistan, then why try to prop up a national government in a country that is predisposed to localized politics? Why try to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people if eliminating terrorists is the priority? But more importantly, why continue to sacrifice American blood and why continue to overextend military resources when the enemy you are trying to crush is just a few hundred hardcore fighters?

Counterterrorism should the overarching strategy for NATO, say the authors, not building schools or digging irrigation ditches. After nine years of war, the best that America and its allies can do is bring the stakeholders in Afghanistan together (Iran, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Central Asian states, etc.), hash out a political compromise between the main factions (the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras) and keep persistent pressure on Al Qaeda training facilities.

Whether or not the strategy will work, of course, is anyone’s guess. Critics of the report cite that its authors are neglecting the symbolic importance of a American withdrawal, and how “cutting and running” would be celebrated as a victory by the insurgents. Advocates, on the other hand, are arguing that a counterinsurgency strategy would require a substantial American presence for at least another five to ten years (American troops are supposed to start withdrawing next summer). Others yet are on the fence, completely baffled with Afghanistan to begin with.

In the end, the policy report may be just that — a report. The Obama Administration may not even pay attention to its findings when it reviews its war policy this December. Or, the report may generate media coverage and begin to sway public opinion. But whatever the final outcome, the Afghanistan Study Group’s research contributes to the debate. And at a time when the United States are themselves confused about where their grand strategy is going, anything that helps to shed light onto an increasingly puzzling subject may be a significant contribution.

One comment

  1. […] the best that America and its allies can do is bring the stakeholders in Afghanistan together (Iran, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Central Asian states, etc.), hash out a political compromise between the main factions (the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras) […]

    Absolutely. But I don’t see how you do that without nation building activity and just chasing Al Qaeda operatives instead.

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