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.
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.
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.
*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.