Afghanistan's Challenges Show the Limits of U.S. Military Power

Let's hope the over decade-long sacrifice to promote democracy wasn't purposeless.

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Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

Foreign policy elites on both sides of the  aisle continually advocate America's leadership role for the sake of spreading democracy. In doing so, they inflate their foresight and ignore the uncomfortable fact that despite the best efforts, America's military and civilian establishments have faced enormous difficulty repairing fragile states emerging from civil conflict. Bipartisan conventional wisdom has created a system that fails to appreciate the limits of America's power, as demonstrated in Afghanistan.

Most policy planners are inherently ambitious. Demanding that they restrain those ambitions overlooks why they reached their positions of power in the first place. But the subject of war and peace requires honest assessments of the likelihood that foreign policy planners can achieve what they promise. Such sober reflection is noticeably absent in foreign policy debates, especially when they link America's interests and the spread of democracy. 

President Barack Obama has claimed that "we protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others." President George W. Bush declared in his 2002 National Military Strategy of the United States that "we will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world." Neoconservative scholar Michael Ledeen went even further, saying after the disastrous invasion of Iraq that "the best democracy program ever invented is the U.S. Army." But in the one region where America's beneficence of peace would seem to matter most, Afghanistan, foreign-policy planers have lost either their ability or their willingness to spread it. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

The coalition, to its credit, has to some extent diminished the areas under insurgent influence and the ability of insurgents to attack the population. But progress remains uneven. According to the Pentagon, while enemy-initiated attacks from April through September 2012 have decreased over the corresponding period from the previous year in the capital, the attacks in relatively quiet Regional Command North and Regional Command West increased by 28 percent and 44 percent respectively. Meanwhile, insider attacks have "steadily risen since 2008" and "increased sharply in 2012," while Afghan Security Forces of undetermined fortitude may undo whatever security gains have been made. Those dismal findings should encourage elites in Washington to question their assumptions about militarism's ostensibly linear connection to democracy and stability.

As a December 2012 Pentagon report to Congress stated bluntly, "The Taliban-led insurgency remains adaptive and determined...The insurgency also retains a significant regenerative capacity." After decades of ruling though fear and intimidation, as well as swift and brutal justice, the remnants of the Taliban's Islamic Emirate have thoroughly penetrated the societal fabric across the region's insular pockets beyond the formal writ of Kabul and Islamabad. As the former head of the Afghan Government's Ministry of Rehabilitation and Rural Development told me years ago in Kabul, "The Taliban is part of our culture," and they must be brought to the negotiation table.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

The Beltway foreign policy commentariat would argue that America did not expend more than 11 years, U.S. taxpayers over half a trillion dollars, and America's military more than 2,100 of their fellow personnel just to waste it on peace with barbarians. They demand total victory. Indeed, the military, "long opposed to negotiations," writes the Washington Post's Karen DeYoung, annually invoke the importance of the Taliban's spring offensive and summer fighting season, thus making every year an inauspicious time for peace talks. Signing a peace agreement with al Qaeda and the Taliban on the U.S.S. Missouri might be desirable, but that unforgiving stance is neither feasible nor sustainable. As is often said, the conflict cannot be won militarily. Negotiation with the Taliban has become unavoidable, despite the complicated scenario of reaching a political settlement in that fractious region.

The coalition's military component must act as an instrument of policy rather than acting as its ultimate driver. Unfortunately, diplomats have exuded similar levels of obstinacy. U.S. and Afghan interlocutors have endorsed the so-called "reintegration" of Taliban foot soldiers, luring them off the battlefield with the promise of money and jobs if they denounce international terrorism (read: al Qaeda), lay down their weapons, and accept the Afghan constitution. Those red lines seek to consolidate the gains the coalition and the Afghan people have won, especially in women and minority rights. Buying off insurgents through reintegration has had mixed success, in part because of the numerous motives that spur people to fight, including resistance to foreign occupation, coalition tactics such as home invasions, and perceived cultural affronts to their society's traditional values. Moreover, as locals in Khost told one expat peace builder, "I really regret reintegrating with the government, I wish I hadn't—but if I go back now, the Taliban will kill me."

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

Aside from being potentially stuck in political purgatory, for Taliban militants to accept the Afghan constitution, as well as the rampantly corrupt and pervasively inept central government which they took up arms against, is equivalent to demanding their surrender. Whatever semblance of stability can be wrought from the latest round of Afghan- and Pakistani-led peace talks would be preferable to unending war and more needless bloodshed. Moreover, for leaders like Secretary of State John Kerry, who recently called on the European Union to sanction Hezbollah, and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who on Charlie Rose reiterated the president's "all options" stance on Iran, using diplomacy to try to end America's longest war would allow these and other ardent promoters of global democracy to finally live up to their lofty ambitions.

After tens of thousands of American and NATO troops dead or wounded, thousands of innocent Afghans maimed or killed, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, let's hope the over decade-long sacrifice wasn't purposeless. If the bipartisan conventional wisdom truly wants to claim that American moral leadership is a force for global peace and stability, there is no better place to prove it than in Afghanistan.

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