|Recognizing the Limits of
American Power in Afghanistan
Candidate Barack Obama was widely seen as running on a peace
platform. More recently President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel
Prize for Peace for supposedly offering a new international approach.
Yet he is considering a major military escalation in Afghanistan.
Instead, the president should rethink Washington's objective. The
conflict has become his war. He should not ask, is Afghanistan
winnable? Rather, the right question is what should the U.S. attempt to
achieve? The goal should be to advance American security, not build an
The president need not rush his decision. Hawkish demagogues who
entrapped the U.S. in an unnecessary war in Iraq hope to do the same in
Afghanistan. For instance, Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) claimed:
"the lack of decisiveness about how to best proceed is emboldening our
enemies and endangering our troops and friends." The worst policy,
however, would be to mimic the foolish decisiveness of President George
Afghanistan was President Bush's "good war," in which Washington
ousted the ruling Taliban for hosting al-Qaeda. But he quickly lost
interest in Afghanistan, shifting Washington's attention and resources
to Iraq. Conflict in Afghanistan has raged for eight years--longer than
the U.S. spent fighting World Wars I and II combined--consuming nearly
900 U.S. and 600 allied lives, as well as $220 billion. The Afghan
people, too, have suffered greatly.
Yet "victory" looks ever more distant. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that the situation in Afghanistan is
"deteriorating." The government barely functions; drug money pervades
the otherwise moribund economy. The number of estimated insurgents,
Taliban attacks, and allied casualties all are rising. Barely a third
of the territory can be said to be under the central government's (very
loose) control, and even large urban areas are no longer safe. Afghan
President Hamid Karzai's supporters engaged in ostentatious and
widespread electoral fraud.
Indeed, the election imbroglio highlights the administration's
challenge. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel declared: "The
result, for us and for the president, is whether, in fact, there's a
credible government and a legitimate process." But that question has
been answered--in the negative. The initial vote was marred by
widespread irregularities; the fraudulently reelected president
accepted a run-off only because the foreign military powers keeping him
in power demanded one; no one imagines President Karzai losing even if
Abdullah Abdullah reverses his decision to boycott the poll. A forced
coalition/national unity government would offer little more legitimacy.
President Obama termed the war one of "necessity" and in March added
21,000 combat troops to the 47,000 Americans already stationed in
Afghanistan. (Another 37,000 allied, largely NATO, forces are on
station, though often where they are not needed.) Now the president's
hand-picked commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is pushing for upwards
of 80,000 more personnel, with 40,000 apparently the "minimum"
acceptable in his view.
The administration is worried about the political implications of
escalation and is considering a compromise--adding some troops, but
fewer than desired by Gen. McChrystal. However, pursuing expansive
objectives without providing the necessary resources would be the worst
policy. Commented Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson: "This
game's been going on for eight years. It's time to raise or fold."
But raising would not guarantee success. The allies initially
deployed 60,000 personnel in Bosnia, a much smaller territory in which
conflict had ceased. At its maximum Russia had 118,000 troops in
Afghanistan, which proved to be too few. Even an extra 80,000
troops--which the U.S. does not have handy to deploy in
Afghanistan--would not be enough. Under traditional counterinsurgency
doctrine, Afghanistan, with 33 million people, many of them living in
remote villages amidst rugged terrain, warrants 660,000 allied
personnel. Nor is NATO reinforcement a realistic option. President
Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Gen. McChrystal all have
pushed for more assistance, but garnered few commitments and even fewer
boots on the ground. Europeans have far less stomach for continuing the
war than do Americans.
The critical issue is Washington's objective. The U.S. long ago
achieved its goal of displacing and weakening al-Qaeda (despite the
failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden) and ousting the Taliban
government which gave the organization refuge. That success persists
despite recent Taliban gains. National Security Adviser James Jones
estimated fewer than 100 al-Qaeda members are operating in Afghanistan,
and said they have "no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us
or our allies."
Ousting the Taliban was simple compared to creating "an effective
and representative government," in the words of Marin Strmecki,
formerly at the Pentagon, or "a national representative government that
is able to govern, defend, and sustain itself," according to four
scholars at the Center for American Progress, or "a credible Afghan
partner for this process that can provide the security and the type of
services that the Afghan people need," in Rahm Emanuel's words. Such a
partner doesn't currently exist and is no where close to existing.
Everyone uses the old adage that Afghanistan is the "graveyard of
empires," but outside powers never have had much success in imposing
their will on the Afghan people. Nation-building is difficult enough:
only in Germany and Japan, with ordered societies and democratic
traditions, has the U.S. had unambiguous success. Third World states
have proved largely impervious to Western attentions.
Afghanistan is no different. Afghanistan "worked" during the
mid-20th century under a monarchy which understood the limits of its
power. The regime respected the poor, traditional, autonomous
tribal-based society which it purportedly ruled. And, most important,
there were no foreign military occupiers.
Social engineering by Washington would be difficult in the best of
circumstances. Afghanistan's challenges are daunting. Observed the
Economist magazine: "The country's mountains and deserts are
forbidding; its tribal make-up bewildering; and, after three decades of
war, its communities broken, poor and ignorant. Well-meant actions
often have unintended effects: fighting can create more insurgents than
it kills; foreigners are blamed for attacks that hurt Afghan civilians;
and schemes to win people over can deepen antagonism."
Afghanistan hosts 20 ethnic groups. Even the Pashtuns are divided
into 50 tribes. This is not a society traditionally welcoming to
outsiders, let alone foreigners. Afghanistan has become the world's
largest opium producer. Finally, Afghan society has been badly deformed
by three decades of war.
After eight years, Washington has not created the answer in Kabul.
Matthew Hoh, a former Marine Corps officer who recently resigned from
the State Department, explained: "Like the Soviets, we continue to
secure and bolster a failing state, while encouraging an ideology and
system of government unknown and unwanted by its people." Ralph Peters,
a columnist who backed the Iraq war, criticized protecting "an Afghan
government the people despise."
The inadequacies of the Karzai regime are manifest and multiple. The
International Crisis Group pointed to "a highly centralized
constitutional order in which the legislature has been denied the tools
to check an overbearing executive, and a neglected judiciary, which
contributes to the climate of impunity and corruption fuelling the
insurgency." Malalai Joya, vilified by fundamentalists for daring to
run for parliament and promote women's rights, complained: "Your
governments have replaced the fundamentalist rule of the Taliban with
another fundamentalist regime of warlords."
Then there is the recent flagrant election fraud, which, wrote Hoh,
"will call into question worldwide our government's military, economic
and diplomatic support for an invalid and illegitimate Afghan
government." Karzai's allies claim that the Afghan president has
learned from the experience, but what has he learned? If he can get
away with rampant fraud, whether or not a second poll is held, he
likely will become even less tractable. U.S. escalation will be seen as
support for the existing regime, not for the sort of idealized system
Washington claims to support.
No intrinsic strategic importance justifies attempting to construct
a genuine Afghan state. Boston University's Andrew Bacevich explained:
"No serious person thinks that Afghanistan--remote, impoverished,
barely qualifying as a nation-state--seriously matters to the United
States." Afghanistan's importance primarily derives from its impact on
nuclear-armed Pakistan, whose largely ungoverned border territories
provide a haven for both Taliban forces and what remains of al-Qaeda.
Blogger Paul Mirengoff contended that "Ceding Afghanistan to
[America's main] enemy would have serious adverse implications for
Pakistan." The Washington Post worried: "success by the [Taliban]
movement in toppling the government of either country would be a
catastrophe for the interests of the United States and major allies
such as India." Others predict a veritable regional disaster if the
However, a semi-stable, semi-workable Afghan state doesn't
necessarily work to Pakistan's advantage. First, how would it affect
Islamabad's most serious security concern--the regional balance with
India? Pakistan strongly supported the Taliban regime pre-9/11 for a
reason. Second, Afghans enjoying the benefits of peace might not
welcome jihadists and
terrorists, encouraging the latter to remain in Pakistan's largely
autonomous border provinces.
Most important, Pakistan seems more likely to be destabilized by an
endless, escalating conflict than a Taliban advance. Islamabad's
vulnerabilities are obvious, with a weak civilian government facing a
complex mix of poverty, instability, insurgency, and terrorism.
Unfortunately, the war in neighboring Afghanistan exacerbates all of
these problems. Argued Hoh: "Our presence in Afghanistan has only
increased destabilization and insurgency in Pakistan." First, the war
has pushed Afghan insurgents across the border. Second, cooperation
with unpopular U.S. policy has reinforced the Zardari government's
appearance as an American toady. Ever-rising American demands further
undercut Pakistani sovereignty and increase public hostility.
From Pakistan's perspective, limiting the war on almost any terms
would be better than prosecuting it for years, even to "victory,"
whatever that would mean. In fact, the least likely outcome is a
takeover by widely unpopular Pakistani militants. The Pakistan military
is the nation's strongest institution; while the army might not be able
to rule alone, it can prevent any other force from ruling.
Indeed, Bennett Ramberg made the important point: "Pakistan, Iran
and the former Soviet republics to the north have demonstrated a brutal
capacity to suppress political violence to ensure survival. This
suggests that even were Afghanistan to become a terrorist haven, the
neighborhood can adapt and resist." The results might not be pretty,
but the region would not descend into chaos. In contrast, warned
Bacevich: "To risk the stability of that nuclear-armed state in the
vain hope of salvaging Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake."
Washington is left with only bad options. One is to continue trying
to "fix" Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal argued: "A strategy that
does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a
short-sighted strategy." Moreover, said Gen. McChrystal, American
strategy must "earn the support of the people," which will win the war
"regardless of how many militants are killed or captured."
Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations even suggested that
"Poor governance is an argument for, not against, a troop surge. Only
by sending more personnel, military and civilian, can President Obama
improve the Afghan government's performance, reverse the Taliban's
gains and prevent al-Qaeda's allies from regaining the ground they lost
after 9/11." In short, failing to create a functional state after eight
years of war means Washington should double down, pushing more lives
and money into the growing pot.
America's well-disciplined and well-trained forces can do much, but
not everything. Hoh observed that no "military force has ever been
tasked with such a complex, opaque and Sisyphean mission as the U.S.
military has received in Afghanistan." Even if better deployed in more
heavily populated areas, the odds of reasonable success in reasonable
time at reasonable cost seem long at best.
The point is not that the majority of Afghans love the Taliban. But
many dislike the Karzai government, local warlords, and/or allied
forces. The costs of "winning" such a complicated game almost certainly
would outweigh the benefits of even the most optimistic projections. As
Peters bluntly states, "the hearts and minds of the Afghans not only
can't be won, but aren't worth winning." More likely than victory would
be years of war, persistent insurgent activity, thousands more American
casualties, hundreds of billions of dollars more outlays, persistent
regional instability, and ultimate U.S. withdrawal.
What are the alternatives? The status quo offers little hope of
reversing the Taliban's gains. Concentrating allied troops in the
cities might offer greater urban security but would concede most of the
country to the insurgency. Accelerating training and equipping of the
Afghan army and police would yield positive results only if the
resulting forces proved to be competent and honest, as well as
competently and honestly led.
The better policy would be for Washington to begin drawing down its
combat forces. The outcome might be Taliban conquest and rule, but
equally likely is continuing conflict and divided governance amongst
competing political factions, ethnic groups, and tribes. The resulting
patchwork would be tragic, but the fighting would no longer be inflamed
by outside intervention.
Would adverse consequences extend beyond the region? The Economist
hyperbolically fears that "defeat for the West in Afghanistan would
embolden its opponents not just in Pakistan, but all around the world,
leaving it more open to attacks." However, jihadists are most likely to
attack Westerners when their grievances are ongoing. Groups based in
Amman, London, Madrid, and Riyadh as well as America are more likely to
act if the American government is killing more rather than fewer
Muslims in Afghanistan.
Moreover, escalation, followed by additional years of conflict and
then ultimate defeat would multiply the harm to America's reputation.
The Soviet Union made this mistake. Author Victor Sebestyen reviewed
the minutes of meetings between Politburo and military officials and
reported: "The Soviets saw withdrawal as potentially fatal to their
prestige in the cold war, so they became mired deeper and deeper in
their failed occupation." Even reformist Mikhail Gorbachev dithered out
of fear of the impact on Moscow's image before finally withdrawing
Soviet forces in 1989.
The most serious argument against withdrawal is that al-Qaeda would
gain additional "safe havens." Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise
Institute argued that "Afghanistan is not now a sanctuary for al-Qaeda,
but it would likely become one again if we abandoned it." Richard
Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special envoy to South Asia,
contended: "without any shadow of a doubt, al-Qaeda would move back
into Afghanistan, set up a larger presence, recruit more people and
pursue its objectives against the United States even more
aggressively." Preventing this is "the only justification for what
we're doing," he insisted.
Yet there is no evidence that al-Qaeda has moved into territory
currently governed by the Taliban. Even Taliban-controlled Afghanistan
would not be a genuine safe haven. Noted Stephen Walt of the Kennedy
School: "The Taliban will not be able to protect [bin Laden] from U.S.
commandos, cruise missiles and armed drones. He and his henchmen will
always have to stay in hiding, which is why even an outright Taliban
victory will not enhance their position very much."
Indeed, anti-terrorism expert Marc Sageman observed in recent
congressional testimony: "there is no reason for al-Qaeda to return to
Afghanistan. It seems safer in Pakistan at the moment." Other options
include other failed or semi-failed states, such as Somalia and Yemen.
The defuse jihadist movement which has organized most of the terrorist
plots since 9/11 has found adequate safe havens even in Europe.
No wonder Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations
admitted, while calling for continuing "a war effort that is costly,
risky and worth waging--but only barely so," that preventing al-Qaeda
from moving back into Afghanistan was "the weakest argument for waging
the kind of war we are now waging." The U.S. doesn't have the resources
necessary to wage war everywhere terrorists might conceivably seek a
safe haven and need not do so in any case.
The administration should adjust its policy ends. Washington's
should be protecting U.S. security. The Washington Post's David
Ignatius railed against adopting "a more selfish counterterrorism
strategy that drops the rebuilding part and seeks to assassinate
America's enemies." But the U.S. government's overriding obligation is
to protect U.S. citizens, and that means focusing on al-Qaeda rather
than the Taliban, forestalling and disrupting terrorist operations
against America. Doing so requires sharing intelligence widely among
affected nations, squeezing terrorist funding networks, utilizing
Special Forces on the ground, employing predator and air
strikes--judiciously, given the tragic risk of civilian casualties,
which both raises moral issues and fuels anti-American sentiment--and
cooperating with various Afghan forces and the Pakistani government.
In contrast, it is not necessary to build a functional state in
Kabul allied with the U.S. Noted Sageman: "The proposed
counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan is at present irrelevant to
the goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda, which is
located in Pakistan. None of the plots in the West has any connection
to any Afghan insurgent group, labeled under the umbrella name 'Afghan
Taliban'." In Afghanistan Washington should tolerate any regime or
group, or combination of regimes or groups, willing to cooperate in
preventing terrorist attacks.
Obviously, policymakers disagree on the likelihood of success of
such a political strategy. One unnamed anti-terrorism official told the
Washington Post that the prospects of political reconciliation are "dim
and grim." Other analysts contend that only major battlefield victories
would encourage Taliban forces to surrender.
Yet history suggests that accommodation is possible and certainly
worth pursuing. After all, the Karzai government has made deals with
warlords and narcotics producers alike. Washington once worked,
reluctantly to be sure, with the Taliban regime to combat drug
production. There are indications that the Taliban was angered by
al-Qaeda's 9/11 assault on the U.S. Moreover, a number of Taliban
commanders defected in the early years after American intervention.
Thus, Washington should attempt to split the Afghan insurgency.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once equated al-Qaeda and the
Taliban, but more recently admitted: "Not every Taliban is an extremist
ally." In fact, the Taliban mixes hard-core militants and disaffected
residents. Arsalan Rahmani, once Islamic affairs minister in the
Taliban government and now a member of the Afghan parliament,
explained: "Some are fighting to go to paradise, but among the Taliban
leaders most want peace. Afghanistan is their homeland and they want
The distinction is widely recognized. Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria
wrote: "It is unclear how many Taliban fighters believe in a global
jihadist ideology, but most U.S. commanders with whom I've spoken feel
that the number is less than 30 percent. The other 70 percent are
driven by money, gangland peer pressure or opposition to Karzai."
Similarly, the Boston Globe quoted an American intelligence official
who contended that only ten percent of insurgents were Taliban
ideologues, while "Ninety percent is a tribal, localized insurgency.''
Even Gen. McChrystal advocated going "pretty high up" to give even
Taliban commanders "the opportunity to come in." He added that Pashtuns
"have always been willing to change positions, change sides. I don't
think much of the Taliban are ideologically driven; I think they are
practically driven. I'm not sure they wouldn't flip to our side."
Washington will need to display both knowledge and nuance,
admittedly too often in short supply, to exploit Taliban differences.
However, being out of power apparently has left the Taliban even less
well-disposed to bin Laden & Co. Explained John Mueller of Ohio
State University: "There are reports that Omar's group has made clear
its rupture with al-Qaeda in talks with Saudi Arabia"
Thus, the Taliban may well focus on its own interests. Mullah
Mutawakkil, once a minister in the Taliban government, believes a deal
is possible: remove bounties on commanders, release insurgent prisoners
held at Bagram air base, and accept Taliban rule in Afghanistan's
southern provinces in return for a commitment not to allow use of
Taliban-controlled territory in attacks on the West.
This would not be a radical policy, since Washington already has
ceded certain areas to warlord control. Insurgent leaders know well
that denial is less costly than control: Washington could launch
targeted strikes against any al-Qaeda operations and oust any regime,
Taliban or other, which allied itself with terrorists. This approach
also would demonstrate to the Muslim world that the U.S. is targeting
terrorists, not Islamic governments. In contrast, warns Mutawakkil: "If
the Taliban fight on and finally became Afghanistan's government with
the help of al-Qaeda, it would then be very difficult to separate them."
Currently joined with the Taliban are opportunistic warlords such as
Gulbaddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani. Washington should appeal to
differences among uneasy allies and offer to buy off--or lease--the
more venal opposition.
An essential aspect of this strategy, however, is withdrawing allied
troops, since many Afghan fighters are determined to resist any foreign
occupiers. A continuing occupation, no matter how well-intentioned from
our perspective, will generate "more casualties, irritation and
recruitment for the Taliban," in the words of Nicholas Kristof.
In fact, the longer more U.S. forces remain, the harder more
insurgents will resist. In 2007, for instance, 27 often feuding groups
coalesced in Pakistan in response to U.S. airstrikes. In Afghanistan
the population has not turned on the Taliban the way Iraqis turned on
the al-Qaeda. Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, who served in both Afghanistan
and Iraq, advocated a U.S. withdrawal over the next 18 months: "Many
experts in and from Afghanistan warn that our presence over the past
eight years has already hardened a meaningful percentage of the
population into viewing the United States as an army of occupation
which should be opposed and resisted."
Unfortunately, there are limits to Washington's ability to
ameliorate this result. Argued Hugh Gusterson, of George Mason
University: "The Pentagon will try to minimize the insult through
cultural sensitivity training and new doctrines that emphasize
befriending the locals, but they will fail because it's in the very
nature of counterinsurgency that occupying forces must be intrusive to
be effective. And when you have thousands of foreign troops being shot
at, accidents and atrocities happen. The more such troops you have, the
more accidents and atrocities you get."
There remains the emotional case for escalation. Army Sgt. Teresa
Coble complained to the Washington Times: "We would not be honoring the
lives of the troops who died if we left here without finishing our
mission." But what is the mission? One should mourn those whose lives
were sacrificed by their government for any policy which failed.
However, al-Qaeda has been largely defanged. The failure to create an
Afghan nation is one of policy, not personnel. It would not honor
American servicemen and women to needlessly toss away even more lives
to continue this failed policy.
It would be especially foolish to embark upon a campaign of
escalation if it is not sustainable over the long-term. And escalation
is not. After nearly eight years of war, the American people are losing
faith--not in the necessity of killing or capturing terrorists, but in
the dream of remaking Afghanistan. The latest CNN poll indicates that
six of ten Americans oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan. Nearly
half want to reduce manpower levels or even withdraw all troops. A
majority also believes that Afghanistan has turned into another Vietnam.
Advocates of years more of costly war for dubious gain argue that
the public should support their policy, but that is irrelevant. The
president must base U.S. policy on what the public likely will support.
Else his strategy will be doomed from the start.
In 2002 Barack Obama warned against fighting a war "without a clear
rationale and without strong international support," and that an
invasion of Iraq would yield: "a U.S. occupation of undetermined
length, at undetermined cost, and with unintended consequences." That
is happening in Afghanistan. In fact, one could imagine bin Laden
hoping to ensnare the U.S. in a no-win war in Afghanistan. Seth Jones
and Martin Libicki of the Rand Corporation noted that "combat
operations in Muslim societies" are "likely to increase terrorist
recruitment." Indeed, parody has become truth. "Reported" the Onion:
"According to sources at the Pentagon, American quagmire-building
efforts continued apace in Afghanistan this week, as the geographically
rugged, politically unstable region remained ungovernable, death tolls
continued to rise, and the grim military campaign persisted as
hopelessly as ever."
Of course, the desire of many Washington policymakers to improve the
lives of Afghans is genuine. Most Afghans want peace and many Afghans
desire American aid to better their land. Given enough resources and
time, courageous and dedicated U.S. personnel could conceivably succeed
in remaking Afghanistan. But the chances are slim while the cost in
lives and treasure inevitably would be high--too high.
Getting out of Afghanistan won't be as easy as getting in. The
administration should develop a strategy to steadily reduce rather than
increase America's military presence. Combat forces should be fully
withdrawn. The U.S. should focus on counter-terrorism. The time and
manner of getting out should reflect potentially changing
circumstances. But withdrawal should be Washington's ultimate objective.
An independent America was born of a rugged determination by common
folk to govern themselves. It should not surprise modern Americans that
many Afghans feel the same way. Despite the persistent delusion in
Washington that the rest of world desperately desires to become
America's next attempt at social engineering, most Afghans are not
waiting for U.S. advisers, diplomats, and soldiers to show them a
better way. To the contrary, many are ready to fight to follow their
Their determination presents the president with a momentous
decision. The administration should narrow the Afghan mission.
Washington's objective should be disrupting al-Qaeda wherever located,
whether Afghanistan, Pakistan, or elsewhere. On occasion that will
warrant military action, but more often other tools will be required.
Even with the finest military on earth the U.S. government cannot do
everything. Reconsidering American strategy in Afghanistan is an
important way for Washington policymakers to acknowledge the limits of
U.S. power. Changing American priorities in this way would be a giant
step by President Obama towards actually earning a Nobel award bestowed
more out of future hope than past achievement.