It’s not worth it, America

GOP chairman Michael Steele was blasted by fellow Republicans recently for describing Afghanistan as “a war of Obama’s choosing,” and suggesting that the United States would fail there, as had many other outside powers. Some critics berated Steele for his pessimism, others for getting his facts wrong, given that President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan soon after 9/11.

By Richard N Haas

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Published: Thu 22 Jul 2010, 9:33 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:23 AM

But Steele’s critics are the ones who are wrong: the RNC chair was more correct than not on the substance of his statement, if not the politics.

The war being waged by the United States in Afghanistan today is fundamentally different and more ambitious than anything carried out by the Bush administration.

Afghanistan is very much Barack Obama’s war of choice, a point that the president underscored recently by picking Gen. David Petraeus to lead an intensified counterinsurgency effort there. After nearly nine years of war, however, continued or increased US involvement in Afghanistan isn’t likely to yield lasting improvements that would be commensurate in any way with the investment of American blood and treasure. It is time to scale down our ambitions there and both reduce and redirect what we do.

The first thing we need to recognise is that fighting this kind of war is in fact a choice, not a necessity. The Bush administration was less clear on what to do next. Working in the State Department at the time, I was appointed by President Bush as the US government’s coordinator for the future of Afghanistan. At a National Security Council meeting chaired by the president in October 2001, I was the one arguing that once the Taleban were removed from power there might be a short-lived opportunity to help establish a weak but functional Afghan state.

There and at subsequent meetings I pressed for a US military presence of some 25,000–30,000 troops (matched by an equal number from NATO countries) to be part of an international force that would help maintain order after the invasion and train Afghans until they could protect themselves. My colleagues in the Bush administration had no interest in my proposal.

By the time Obama became president in 2009, the situation inside Afghanistan was fast deteriorating. The Taleban were regaining a foothold. There was concern in Washington that if left unchecked they could soon threaten the existence of the elected government in Kabul headed by Hamid Karzai. Trends were judged to be so bad that the president ordered 17,000 more American combat troops to Afghanistan even before the first review he’d ordered up was finished. Since then Obama has had several opportunities to reassess US goals and interests in Afghanistan, and in each instance he has chosen to escalate.

Today the counterinsurgency strategy that demanded all those troops is clearly not working. While the surge of US forces has pushed back the Taleban in certain districts, the Karzai government has been unable to fill the vacuum with effective governance and security forces that could prevent the Taleban’s return. So far the Obama administration is sticking with its strategy; indeed, the president went to great lengths to underscore this when he turned to Petraeus to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Kabul. No course change is likely until at least December, when the president will find himself enmeshed in yet another review of his Afghan policy.

This will be Obama’s third chance to decide what kind of war he wants to fight in Afghanistan, and he will have several options to choose from, even if none is terribly promising. The first is to stay the course: to spend the next year attacking the Taleban and training the Afghan Army and police, and to begin reducing the number of US troops in July 2011 only to the extent that conditions on the ground allow. Presumably, if conditions are not conducive, Petraeus will try to limit any reduction in the number of US troops and their role to a minimum. This approach is hugely expensive, however, and is highly unlikely to succeed.

There are, however, other options. One is reconciliation, a fancy word for negotiating a ceasefire with those Taleban leaders willing to stop fighting in exchange for the chance to join Afghanistan’s government. It is impossible, though, to be confident that many Taleban leaders would be prepared to reconcile; they might decide that time is on their side if they only wait and fight. Nor is it likely that the terms they would accept would in turn be acceptable to many Afghans, who remember all too well what it was like to live under the Taleban. A national-unity government is farfetched.

One new idea put forward by Robert Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India, is for a de facto partition of Afghanistan. Under this approach, the United States would accept Taleban control of the Pashtun-dominated south so long as the Taleban did not welcome back Al Qaeda and did not seek to undermine stability in non-Pashtun areas of the country. If the Taleban violated these rules, the United States would attack them with bombers, drones, and Special Forces. US economic and military support would continue to flow to non-Pashtun Afghans in the north and west of the country.

This idea has its drawbacks as well as appeal. A self-governing “Pashtunistan” inside Afghanistan could become a threat to the integrity of Pakistan, whose own 25 million Pashtuns might seek to break free to form a larger Pashtunistan. Any partition would also be resisted by many Afghans, including those Tajik, Baluchi, and Hazara minorities living in demographic “islands” within the mostly Pashtun south, as well as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and others elsewhere in the country who want to keep Afghanistan free of Taleban influence. And even many Pashtuns would resist for fear of the harsh, intolerant rule the Taleban would impose if given the chance.

Another approach, best termed “decentralisation,” bears resemblance to partition but also is different in important ways. Under this approach, the United States would provide arms and training to those local Afghan leaders throughout the country who reject Al Qaeda and who do not seek to undermine Pakistan. Pakistan is much more important than Afghanistan given its nuclear arsenal, its much larger population, the many terrorists on its soil, and its history of wars with India. But Pakistan’s future will be determined far more by events within its borders than those to its west. The good news is that the Army shows some signs of understanding that Pakistan’s own Taleban are a danger to the country’s future, and has begun to take them on.

All this argues for reorienting US Afghan policy toward decentralisation — providing greater support for local leaders and establishing a new approach to the Taleban. The war the US is now fighting in Afghanistan is not succeeding and is not worth waging in this way. The time has come to scale back US objectives and sharply reduce US involvement on the ground. Afghanistan is claiming too many American lives, requiring too much attention, and absorbing too many resources. The sooner we accept that Afghanistan is less a problem to be fixed than a situation to be managed, the better.

Richard Hass is Chairman of the US Council on Foreign Relations and the author of War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars

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