By Isobel Coleman |
Talk to civilian and military officials who've recently served in Afghanistan and you will be hard-pressed to find a single optimistic assessment of our current strategy there. The sober truth is, despite a decade of our military's best efforts, Afghanistan seems irrevocably fixed on a return to chaos and ethnic conflict. Even before the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a rogue army soldier on March 11, our capacity to alter the country's trajectory was stifled by the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government and by our own strategic errors, not least the public announcement of a 2014 withdrawal timeline. After the massacre—and the recent Quran-burning incident—America's credibility with the Afghan public, leverage over the Taliban, and relationship with the Karzai administration have sunk to all-time lows. The Taliban called off peace talks last week.
Could a generous infusion of troops and resources, coupled with a new strategy, materially change Afghanistan's course? Perhaps. But domestic economic and political constraints—not least the dramatic drop in public support for the war and growing opposition from Republican presidential candidates—have rendered such a long-term commitment untenable.
Make no mistake about it: Leaving Afghanistan in a state of war and lacking self-sustaining governance will likely carry disastrous consequences, including a potential return of U.S. forces in some capacity. However, neither staying the course nor doubling down on our investment offers a realistic path to success.
The tragedy of America's conundrum in Afghanistan it that it was not only entirely foreseeable but publicly predicted by our own leadership. In 2009, then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair stated in no uncertain terms: "No improvement in Afghanistan is possible without Pakistan taking control of its border areas." That statement, which will forever haunt the history of the Afghan War, was reaffirmed by administration officials on countless occasions.
An insurgency receiving safe haven and patronage from a neighboring country is nearly impossible to defeat, so goes the first pillar of counterinsurgency strategy. So when it became obvious years ago that Pakistan had refused to cut ties to the Taliban, the administration had a solemn obligation to our men and women in uniform: Either force a dramatic change in Pakistan's behavior or pull our troops out of a war zone where the deck is stacked against them. Confronted with these two unappealing choices, our leaders balked, opting for superficial tactical changes and dooming President Obama's Af-Pak strategy from the start.
While much is unclear about Afghanistan's future beyond America's withdrawal, there are a few things we can be sure of: Pakistan bears much of the responsibility for this tragedy; America will receive all of the blame; and the Afghan people will suffer all of the deadly consequences.
About Jeff Smith Kraemer Strategy Fellow and Director of the South Asia Program at the American Foreign Policy Council
Caroline Wadhams Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress
Shuja Nawaz Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council