The U.S. Can't Stay in Afghanistan Forever

Mission creep made the establishment of a viable Afghan state as important of a mission as going after al Qaeda, but American troops can't keep dying.

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A U.S. army gunner sits at the rear of a CH-47 helicopter as he escorts the blackhawk helicopter carrying U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates enroute from Kabul to the Forward Operating Base Airborne on May 8, 2009 in Wardak Province, Afghanistan. Gates is in Afghanistan ahead of the 21,000 increase in U.S. troops in the country.
As with the end of U.S. involvement in Iraq, the Obama administration may decide to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan.

Michael P. Noonan is the director of the program on national security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Last week the Obama administration floated the possibility of a "zero option" for Afghanistan whereby zero U.S. troops might remain on the ground there starting in 2014. Prior to that trial balloon it was envisioned that the U.S. troop presence might be down in the four-digit range of personnel compared to the current post-surge 66,000-troop level. While some see this as a ploy to pressure the Afghan government to permit a more favorable Status of Forces Agreement (known as SOFA, the provisions governing the treatment of U.S. personnel in the country on a range of issues), others aren't so sure.

Dov Zakheim, former undersecretary of defense (comptroller), the civilian coordinator for Afghanistan from 2002-2004, and, full disclosure, a vice chairman of Foreign Policy Research Institute's board of trustees, over at The National Interest online, however, argues that a few thousand U.S. troops won't stem the tide of an emboldened Taliban. For him

It is not enough to lavish constant praise on our men and women in uniform. We must be sensible about putting their lives at risk. There is simply no justification for having a single American killed or wounded on the Afghan battlefield if all is certain to come to naught in a year's time or less. The president should either push hard for a SOFA as soon as possible—and commit to a realistic force level to remain once that SOFA is concluded—or pull all our troops out of Afghanistan. Now.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

This is a bold and apt call, but the Karzai government knows the costs of turning off U.S. support, so a Status of Forces Agreement allowing a small garrison will probably be approved. Unfortunately this probably will mean that rampant corruption will continue with marginal, if any, changes in the security environment.

Steven Metz of the Army War College over at World Politics Review takes a longer view and asks what the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan will mean for the future use of U.S. national security policy. He argues that there are generally three schools of thought on Afghanistan currently (and that none of them have it right):

  1. "defeat snatched from the jaws of victory" (from the right; the Obama administration lost the war)
  2. "just say no" (from the left, libertarians, and the paleoconservative right; the United States doesn't do counterinsurgency well and should stay out of it in the future)
  3. the "fatalists" (centrists; U.S. counterinsurgency practices are sound but can't ensure success)
  4. The real issue is that U.S. conceptions of counterinsurgency are wrong.  According to him

    …the American conceptualization of counterinsurgency assumed that partner regimes shared the Western notion of what a state should be: an entity that reflected the beliefs of all the people of a country and dispersed goods and services based on formal procedures such as the rule of law and democratic elections. The reality is that in many parts of the world, the state is a mechanism by which the group that controls it extracts as many resources as possible, whether money, concessions, government jobs, natural resources or pure power. When a parasitic political system is threatened by insurgency, those who control it will only make the minimum concessions necessary to hold on to power. The last thing they want to do is fundamentally alter a system that deeply rewards them. Yet that is what American counterinsurgency thinking expects them to do.

    [See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

    And that

    The lesson of Afghanistan, then, is not that the United States will never again engage in counterinsurgency, as the time may come when such an option is the lesser evil. Nor is it that if Americans remain steadfast they will succeed. The lesson is that the conceptualization of counterinsurgency that has driven the United States for the past decade only works under a very specific set of circumstances. If these circumstances are not present, America needs a radically different approach.

    Unfortunately, there are few signs so far that this has been learned. Within the U.S. military, the idea still dominates that with a bit of tweaking and refinement, the methods used in Iraq and Afghanistan can provide a model for the future. If this continues, disasters await.

    [Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Withdraw from Afghanistan Sooner?]

    Coming up with such different approaches will likely be difficult and politically and institutionally unpalatable for many.

    The only reason for the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was to end that country's harboring of the al Qaeda leadership responsible for carrying out the attacks on 9/11. Unfortunately over the years mission creep made the establishment of a viable Afghan state as important of a mission as going after al Qaeda. Perhaps this is due to an internalization of the "lesson" of Charlie Wilson's War  that perhaps 9/11 wouldn't have happened had we not turned our back on Afghanistan after the Soviets were expelled. Perhaps it was for other reasons. Regardless, American troops should not be dying so that kleptocrats can enrich themselves and retire elsewhere if the Taliban return to power. A return of the Taliban does not ensure a return of al Qaeda training camps. Perhaps austerity (if not experience) can cause a rethinking of the ends and ways calculus.

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