Rethinking Afghanistan

Many say it's time to scale back

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Nine years, 1,200 U.S. military casualties, 800 coalition military casualties, and tens of thousands of civilian deaths after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. pundits are coming together for an increasingly common exercise: rethinking our war in Afghanistan. The conflict that began with the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion shows little sign of abatement, with recent military initiatives like the assault on Marja showing little progress, government corruption still endemic, and insurgent violence increasingly far-reaching. In a new and deeply worrying twist, The Daily Beast reports that leaders of the Tajik minority, long a reliable ally of the U.S., may be considering revolting against the Afghan government. Here is what a handful of writers, some of them responding to the recent Afghanistan Study Group report, have to say. Although there is little impetus for those who support the status quo to say so in an op-ed column, it's telling that so many writers are so pessimistic about the current strategy. Many say it's time to scale back.

  • 5 Way to Fix our Failing Strategy  Director of the New American Foundation's American Strategy Program Steve Clemons warns, "the hemorrhage of U.S. interests and resources is only worsening. Despite acceding to the Pentagon’s surge in troop levels, huge budget requests and civilian nation-builders, as well as the deployment of a superstar general, Obama’s current approach in Afghanistan is failing." He lists five recommendations from the Afghanistan Study Group, in which he participated. (1) "Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion." (2) "Downsize and eventually end military operations in southern Afghanistan." (3) "Focus security efforts on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security." (4) "Encourage economic development." (5) Get Afghanistan's neighbors more involved.
  • The Biggest Problem: Corruption  The New York Times' Dexter Filkins asks, "What if government corruption is more dangerous than the Taliban? ... Afghanistan is now widely recognized as one of the world’s premier gangster-states. ... Worse, the rationalization offered by the Western official — that Afghans are happy to tolerate a certain level of bribery and theft — seems to have turned out terribly wrong. It now seems clear that public corruption is roundly despised by ordinary Afghans, and that it may constitute the single largest factor driving them into the arms of the Taliban." Filkins says U.S. actors in Afghanistan have long turned a blind eye to corruption, considering it less of a problem that it really is.
  • Scale It Way Down  The Washington Post's Katrina vanden Heuvel approvingly cites the Afghanistan Study Group report. "The report offers a thorough analysis of why and how we must dramatically reduce America's footprint in our nation's longest and most expensive war. ... The study group encourages policymakers to reconceptualize the conflict. Rather than a struggle between Hamid Karzai's central government and a Taliban/terrorist insurgency, it is in fact a civil war about power-sharing across ethnic, geographic and sectarian lines. With that in mind, the report recommends a strategy that downsizes and eventually ends U.S. military operations and keeps the focus on al-Qaeda, while at the same time encouraging political power-sharing, economic development and diplomatic engagement by other countries in the region."
  • No 'Do-Overs' in Long Wars  Foreign Policy's Stephen Walt writes, "Many 'long wars' begin with a half-hearted, desultory effort (as in Vietnam in the early 1960s, or Afghanistan from 2003-2007), often because U.S. leaders have more pressing priorities. When it becomes clear that things aren't going well, however, presidents and their advisors normally conclude that they haven't given the war their best shot and tend to assume that a serious effort will turn the tide. ... By the time the U.S. gets serious about these local conflicts, the situation has often deteriorated so badly that even a major effort may not succeed, or at least not quickly. ... Even if the military keeps coming up with clever new strategies, the public won't support a lengthy campaign that isn't producing visible and positive results. The obvious implication is that Obama and General Petraeus have a few more months to show tangible results of the decision to escalate in Afghanistan. And if I were them, I'd be thinking about a Plan B."
  • Revise War's Post-9/11 Assumptions  Stratfor's George Friedman laments "a decade of failure in the intelligence community to understand what al Qaeda was and wasn't." He says that President Bush entered Sept. 12, 2001, without "a clear picture of al Qaeda's global structure, capabilities, weaknesses and intentions. Without such information, implementing U.S. policy was like piloting an airplane with faulty instruments in a snowstorm at night." He says that invading Afghanistan was "retrospectively out of proportion to the threat" of al-Qaeda, which is just not that powerful. "Knowing that about al Qaeda in 2001 was impossible." But we know it now and should act on it by scaling down our efforts.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.