Afghanistan's Unattractive Options

Withdraw or negotiate?

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As the situation in Syria gets closer to the boiling point and new developments are occurring by the moment I thought I would turn my attention to another ongoing issue for the United States: Afghanistan. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs (subscription required for full access to the articles discussed below) Karl Eikenberry, the former commanding general of the Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, and the George Washington University's Stephen Biddle offer two important perspectives on the situation in that country as we approach the pivotal 2014.

Ambassador Eikenberry in " The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan: The Other Side of the COIN" argues that the situation in Afghanistan today is largely the product of too much reliance on counterinsurgency, or COIN, doctrine. In his estimation,

Blindly following COIN doctrine led the U.S. military to fixate on defeating the insurgency while giving short shrift to Afghan politics and hence the political logic of the overarching campaign. U.S. military commanders became obsessed with convincing Commander in Chief Karzai to use his rapidly expanding and staggeringly expensive security forces to defeat the Taliban. However, their main efforts should have focused on helping President Karzai deliver an inclusive peace and Chief Executive Karzai build an adequate state apparatus.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

This disconnect meant that the U.S. strategy

…suffered from a serious internal contradiction. Its military claimed to have a winning plan that it pretended was supported by the Afghan head of state and commander in chief. But this was a complete fiction. Karzai disagreed intellectually, politically, and viscerally with the key pillars of the COIN campaign. The result was that while American military commanders tirelessly worked to persuade the Afghan president through factual presentation, deference, and occasional humor that the plan was working, they never seemed to consider that Karzai just might not be on board.

From this experience in Afghanistan he suggests that there are three key lessons to learn:

  1. "…that war should be waged only in pursuit of clear political goals -- ones informed by military advice but decided on by responsible civilian leaders."
  2. Even though the U.S. military leaders are credited for agility and resourcefulness there is a risk that doctrine can cause too much rigidity, arrogance, and groupthink. "The COIN paradigm was applied with such unquestioning zeal that critical thought was often suspended."
  3. And "…even as the United States relearns the limits of intervention, it should not reject all the techniques and procedures put into practice in Afghanistan and Iraq."

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

Professor Biddle in " Ending the War in Afghanistan: How to Avoid Failure on the Installment Plan" for his part argues that while U.S. involvement in Afghanistan may end in 2014 the war will not end and that "…its ultimate outcome is very much in doubt." In his assessment:

Should current trends continue, U.S. combat troops are likely to leave behind a grinding stalemate between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Afghan National Security Forces can probably sustain this deadlock, but only as long as the U.S. Congress pays the multibillion-dollar annual bills needed to keep them fighting. The war will thus become a contest in stamina between Congress and the Taliban. Unless Congress proves more patient than the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, funding for the ANSF will eventually shrink until Afghan forces can no longer hold their ground, and at that point, the country could easily descend into chaos. If it does, the war will be lost and U.S. aims forfeited. A policy of simply handing off an ongoing war to an Afghan government that cannot afford the troops needed to win it is thus not a strategy for a "responsible end" to the conflict; it is closer to what the Nixon administration was willing to accept in the final stages of the Vietnam War, a "decent interval" between the United States' withdrawal and the eventual defeat of its local ally.

This leads to two alternative courses of action: (1) leave Afghanistan, full stop, now and substantially reduce the aid that we give to Kabul or (2) get serious about negotiating with the Taliban.

Option one is not satisfying because the Afghan National Security Forces which will need to continue the fight are a mixed lot and the U.S., and others, will have to continue to fund their operations. And while their operating budget of $6.5 billion for 2013 is nearly 5 percent of what the U.S. paid to wage the war in 2011 alone, over time Biddle sees those funds as being a hard sell for Congress to pay for with an "indefinite stalemate on the horizon".

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Option two is tricky because while the Taliban have shown a willingness to negotiate it will be unpopular domestically because both conservatives (doubting President Obama's motives and fearing the signal that negotiations would send) and liberals (concerned with the rights of women and minorities there) are opposed. But what would the deal look like?

In principle, a bargain could be reached that preserved all parties' vital interests even if no one's ideal aims were achieved. The Taliban would have to renounce violence, break with al Qaeda, disarm, and accept something along the lines of today's Afghan constitution. In exchange, they would receive legal status as a political party, set-asides of offices or parliamentary seats, and the withdrawal of any remaining foreign forces from Afghanistan. The Afghan government, meanwhile, would have to accept a role for the Taliban in a coalition government and the springboard for Taliban political activism that this would provide. In exchange, the government would be allowed to preserve the basic blueprint of today's state, and it would surely command the votes needed to lead a governing coalition, at least in the near term. Pakistan would have to give up its blue-sky ambitions for an Afghan puppet state under Taliban domination, but it would gain a stable border and enough influence via its Taliban proxies to prevent any Afghan-Indian axis that could threaten it. And the United States, for its part, would have to accept the Taliban as a legal political actor, with an extra-democratic guarantee of positions and influence, and the probable forfeiture of any significant base structure for conducting counterterrorist operations from Afghan soil.

Such a deal, for the United States, would, according to Biddle, ensure "that Afghanistan not become a base for militants to attack the West and that it not become a base for destabilizing the country's neighbors." But if negotiations aren't possible, or they won't be palatable, then we should leave now because the continued costs in blood and treasure won't be acceptable.

What should we make of these arguments? They are both sobering. Twelve years ago several hundred special operators and paramilitary operatives assisted by large quantities of precision-guided munitions aided a proxy force to topple the Taliban regime and scatter the al-Qaida members there who had directed, planned and assisted the 9/11 attacks. Since then the costs in human and financial toll has increased. While President Obama came into office and doubled down on Afghanistan hoping to stabilize the situation on the ground, the political conditions were not present to allow the Afghan surge to succeed. And perhaps success was never all that possible unless we narrowly defined success as ensuring that al-Qaida not return and train and plot from there. Regardless, Eikenberry and Biddle should be read and pondered by officials in Washington before anyone contemplates any form of large-scale, in-depth involvement on the ground in messy conflicts.

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.