Afghanistan: Rethinking U.S. Strategy

Steve Walt, Steve Clemons, Matthew Hoh and others have released a provocative new report arguing for a change in our Afghanistan strategy.

Last night, at the invitation of Steve Clemons,  I attended a dinner* with Steve Walt, Matthew Hoh, and other members of the Afghanistan Study Group, journalists, think tankers, and Friends of Steve discussing the recommendations made in A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan.

I discuss the report at some length in my New Atlanticist post “Afghanistan: A New Way Forward?” which has generous excerpts from the report.

In a nutshell, the authors argue that we’re spending seven times Afghanistan’s GNP each year and not accomplishing much.   Al Qaeda is down to a rump force and the Taliban is unlikely to resume power, so we should work out a negotiated settlement that empowers tribal leaders, reduce our footprint, focus on counterterrorism vice nation-building, encourage economic development, and engage regional stakeholders.

My take:

The Group deserves credit for devising a politically credible path between continuing an unsustainable policy for a few more years to see how it goes and the other extreme of precipitous withdrawal.   If anything, they’re too rosy even in their scaled down plan, most notably in their development plank.

[…]

The first plank, though, strikes me as simultaneously unnecessary and contradictory.   Regardless of our policy preferences, power in Afghanistan is already decentralized.  Outside Kabul, Hamid Karzai is president in name only.   While there’s value in simply accepting that fact, doing so will have little impact on the day-to-day governance of the society.    But the “political reconciliation” half of the recommendation, which includes allowing the Taliban to enter into negotiations without any preconditions, could very well undermine the legitimacy of tribal leaders.

The fourth plank, as alluded to earlier, is both laudable and unlikely to amount to much.   Giving Afghanistan most favored nation trading status is all well and good but what, exactly, is it that they’ve got to trade?  Aside from opium, of course.  The various micro-lending, “special reconstruction zones,” and whatnot couldn’t hurt but are vulnerable to the same forces that have been undermining our development efforts the past nine years:  endemic corruption and targeting by extremists who desperately want to stymie modernization efforts.

The fifth plank, engagement of global stakeholders, has been bandied about so much that it now amounts to throat clearing.    Under the leadership of then-Chairman Jim Jones, the Atlantic Council was calling for such a comprehensive approach back in January of 2008.  The passage of time, however, has rather clearly demonstrated that the regional stakeholders do not, in fact, have the same objectives.   Indeed, because the United States is seen as the lead actor, many have a strong desire to see the mission fail.

None of this is meant to disparage the efforts of the Group.  Following their recommendations would be a dramatic step in the right direction as compared to the current path of doubling down on a failed strategy.    Simply calling what we have now “victory” and going home, while appealing, is not a viable option.   So, perhaps putting the fig leafs of economic development and diplomatic solutions around a policy that starts us on the path to withdrawal is the only way forward.   But we’re likely kidding ourselves if we believe our own rhetoric while doing it.

Much more at the link.

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*In the interests of full disclosure, they plied me with decent wine and a chicken dinner. While long past the point where free food and drink has much influence on me, the FCC wants you to know these things.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, National Security, World Politics, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    @JJ
    “Giving Afghanistan most favored nation trading status is all well and good but what, exactly, is it that they’ve got to trade? Aside from opium, of course.”
     
    Was there any suggestion that we purchase the entire opium crop? I’d read this suggested in the past.  I forget the precise arguments for the purchase, but I seem to recall this would harm Taliban interests in some way (or have I got that wrong?).
     
     

  2. ponce says:

    Sounds familiar…Declare victory and pull out?

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Since this is the approach I’ve been suggesting here and at my own place for the last several years, it would be odd for me to start disagreeing with it now.  However, contra ponce above, this is a long-term proposition.  We need to have what’s occasionally been described as a “compact, lethal force” with rules of engagement tailored for counter-terrorism, small enough to politically acceptable both here and in Afghanistan but capable enough to be effective, and we need to recognize that we’re going to be involved in Afghanistan for a long, long time.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Was there any suggestion that we purchase the entire opium crop?

    Yes. It was one of many suggestions put out in bullet form in that section.

    Since this is the approach I’ve been suggesting here and at my own place for the last several years, it would be odd for me to start disagreeing with it now.

    I knew it looked familiar!

    We need to have what’s occasionally been described as a “compact, lethal force” with rules of engagement tailored for counter-terrorism, small enough to politically acceptable both here and in Afghanistan but capable enough to be effective, and we need to recognize that we’re going to be involved in Afghanistan for a long, long time.

    That’s likely the best we can hope for and is the essence, I think, of the Group’s plan.  Most of what I disagree with, I suspect, is just window dressing that serves to 1) get buy-in from a very diverse group of contributors and 2) appease the “we can’t be seen to be surrendering” crowd.

  5. c.red says:

    I’ll have to come back and read your linked article when I have more time, but why do you think the Taliban are unlikely to come back into power?

    I would think if the US pulls out of Afghanistan it is very likely theTaliban would more or less suspend operations in Pakistan and focus on getting back into power, probably with Pakistani money backing them (again).

  6. c.red says:

    I’ll try again. I got a chance to read the whole report over lunch, and in my opinion they may be being overly optimistic regarding the Taliban in Afghanistan.

    They cite that the Taliban can’t come back into power because a.) factional in-fighting, b.) resistance by non-Taliban groups to Taliban authority, and c.) the Pakistani Taliban is a separate organization which would not support the re-taking of Afghanistan.

    I have not heard any significant reports of factional fighting by the Taliban, they seem to be remarkably cohesive as an insurgent group, much more than they probably should be, considering the damage we have done to their command structure over the years. I vaguely remember one report sometime in the last few years when several groups got together and we thought there may be fighting between them and it turned out they worked it out and all went back to fighting.

    The resistance to the Taliban seems laughable, since every time we hear about any resistance whatsoever, even to two bit thugs stealing food, it is hailed as some great break-thru. That such minor resistance is considered a success leads me to believe there is not much.

    As for c., even if it could be considered a separate organization, the P. Taliban would probably enthusiastically support retaking A. Elsewhere in the report they mention how Pakistan has been a safe haven for A. Taliban and that could easily go both ways. I would not be surprised to see the Pakistani Gov support (read pay for) this just as a way to get rid of the P Taliban for awhile, just like they did in the 80s and 90s.

    I think it is a major point because the entire plan hinges on not letting the Taliban (or some similarly hostile to America group) seize control. They state in the report the US will have to stay engaged to keep that from happening, so we would not be “getting out” of Afghanistan. By lowering our commitment /footprint we could be giving up current (hard earned) advantages.

    By the way, I’m just playing devil’s advocate, I strongly suspect this is the way to go. Certainly I have very little knowledge compared to the people that created this report.

  7. c.red says:

    For some reason this new comments ap is really hard to work with – it cut out on me twice while typing that last one up. (Which I guess was a hint to keep it shorter…)

    I’ll generally try to keep it shorter than that.