There's another way forward in Afghanistan.
Call it Plan B.
An ad hoc group of disillusioned foreign policy experts is offering
President Obama a serious, well thought-out alternative to his current
failing strategy there.
Their Plan B entails a dramatic reduction in the American troop
presence, a mission focused on the minimal Al Qaeda threat rather than
on trying to defeat the Taliban, and a peace process that leads to
"[T]he way forward acknowledges the manifold limitations of a
military solution in a region where our interests lie in political
stability," says the forthcoming report from the Afghanistan Study
Group. The group of 40 scholars, former officials and activists was
assembled by Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation.
"The United States should by no means abandon Afghanistan, but it is
time to abandon the current strategy that is not working," the report
concludes. "Trying to pacify Afghanistan by force of arms will not work,
and a costly military campaign there is more likely to jeopardize
America's vital security interests than to protect them. The Study Group
believes that the United States should pursue more modest goals that
are both consistent with America's true interests and far more likely to
Patrick Cronin, a South Asian expert at the Center for a New American
Security and a member of the study group, calls the report an antidote
to mission creep.
"There's no significant Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today, so
the original purpose has largely dissipated," Cronin told the Huffington
Post. By contrast, he said, American interests do not require the
military defeat of the Taliban. Worse than that, "this strategy is
actually being counterproductive for our interests."
Paul R. Pillar, a Georgetown University professor who formerly served
as the CIA's chief intelligence analyst for the Middle East, wrote in
an email to the Huffington Post: "For me, the most important part of
this exercise is explicit recognition that: (1) there is a disconnect
between waging a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and the professed goal
of keeping Americans safe from terrorism; and (2) the costs to the
United States of this war are all out of proportion to what is at stake
in Afghanistan and how it affects U.S. interests."
"The report's main argument is that U.S. Interests in Central Asia
are limited, and do not justify the costly and open-ended commitment in
which we are currently engaged," Stephen M. Walt, a Harvard
international relations professor and a group member, e-mailed HuffPost.
"Instead of trying to build a unified central state in Afghanistan --
a task for which the United States and its allies are unqualified --
the United States and its partners should reduce their military
footprint, focus on devolving power to local leaders and institutions,
and concentrate on economic development. Our combat and intelligence
effort should focus on the small number of Al Qaeda members remaining in
Afghanistan or northwest Pakistan."
Plan B has five major points:
1. Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion. The U.S.
should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within
Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal
2. Downsize and eventually end military operations in southern
Afghanistan, and reduce the U.S. military footprint. The U.S. should
draw down its military presence, which radicalizes many Pashtuns and is
an important aid to Taliban recruitment.
3. Focus security efforts on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security. Special
forces, intelligence assets, and other U.S. capabilities should continue
to seek out and target known Al Qaeda cells in the region and be ready
to go after them should they attempt to relocate elsewhere or build new
training facilities. In addition, part of the savings from our drawdown
should be reallocated to bolster U.S. domestic security efforts and to
track nuclear weapons globally.
4. Encourage economic development. Because destitute states can
become incubators for terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and other
illicit activities, efforts at reconciliation should be paired with an
internationally-led effort to develop Afghanistan's economy.
5. Engage regional and global stakeholders in a diplomatic effort
designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability.
Despite their considerable differences, neighboring states such as
India, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia share a common interest in
preventing Afghanistan from being dominated by any single power or
being a permanently failed state that exports instability to others.
Specifically, the report urges Obama to stick to his pledge to begin
withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011 -- or earlier. There will soon be
100,000 American troops in Afghanistan; the report calls for that number
to decrease to 68,000 troops by October 2011, and 30,000 by July 2012.
Among the report's central arguments:
• Al Qaeda sympathizers are now present in many locations
globally, and defeating the Taliban will have little effect on Al
Qaeda's global reach. The ongoing threat from Al Qaeda is better met via
specific counter-terrorism measures, a reduced U.S. military
"footprint" in the Islamic world, and diplomatic efforts to improve
America's overall image and undermine international support for militant
• Given our present economic circumstances, reducing the staggering
costs of the Afghan war is an urgent priority. Maintaining the long-term
health of the U.S. economy is just as important to American strength
and security as protecting U.S. soil from enemy (including terrorist)
• The continuation of an ambitious U.S. military campaign in
Afghanistan will likely work against U.S. interests. A large U.S.
presence fosters local (especially Pashtun) resentment and aids Taliban
recruiting. It also fosters dependence on the part of our Afghan
partners and encourages loser cooperation among a disparate array of
extremist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan alike.
So what happens next? "I hope the report helps foster a more open and
informed debate about our various efforts there, and to consider
better ways to secure core U.S. Interests," Walt wrote.
But he has no illusions about the pressures to keep going. "It is
almost always easier to get into a war than it is to get out, and the
main obstacle to either strategic innovation or retrenchment is politics
back home. The Obama administration doesn't want to leave until it can
claim some sort of victory, and neither does the U.S. military. Even if
prospects for success are slim, therefore, it will be difficult for
Obama and his advisors to chart a radically different course."