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Finding A Way Out of Afghanistan

Team B efforts have long played an influential role in determining the
outcome of intra-elite debates on critical national security issues. In
the 1970s, the CIA's Team B report on Soviet military capabilities,
together with the work of the Committee on the Present Danger,
encouraged the Carter administration away from détente and toward an
arms race with Moscow. And the Project for the New American Century, led
by William Kristol and a passel of neo-cons, was influential in swaying
the Bush administration toward the invasion of Iraq.

A Team B report to be formally released tomorrow by the Afghanistan Study Group -- an ad hoc group of former government officials, well-known academics and policy experts assembled by the New America Foundation
-- has the potential to be similarly influential. At a moment when the
administration and too many members of Congress have failed to explore
alternatives to Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy, the
importance of this clear and cogent report can't be overstated.

The report offers a thorough analysis of why and how we must
dramatically reduce America's footprint in our nation's longest and most
expensive war. Although the war is justified by its proponents as an
effort to eradicate al-Qaeda, the report notes that "there are only some
400 hard-core al-Qaeda members remaining in the entire Af-Pak theater,
most of them hiding in Pakistan's northwest provinces."

Meanwhile, the war costs U.S. taxpayers approximately $100 billion a
year -- about seven times Afghanistan's annual gross domestic product of
$14 billion and more than the cost of the Obama administration's
health-care plan. Considering that price tag alongside the number of
troops killed or seriously wounded, the report concludes that "the U.S.
interests at stake in Afghanistan do not warrant this level of

Matthew Hoh, a former U.S. Marine and Afghanistan-based State Department official who resigned his post in protest
last year and now serves as director of the study group, elaborated on
the flawed strategy in a conversation with me. "Since 2005, as we put
more troops and money into this effort, the U.S. and NATO have been
expanding their presence throughout Afghanistan and trying to expand the
reach of the Afghan central government," Hoh said. "But since then, all
we have seen is more casualties, more combat, increased support for the
Taliban and decreased support for the Karzai government."

The study group encourages policymakers to reconceptualize the conflict.
Rather than a struggle between Hamid Karzai's central government and a
Taliban/terrorist insurgency, it is in fact a civil war about
power-sharing across ethnic, geographic and sectarian lines. With that
in mind, the report recommends a strategy that downsizes and eventually
ends U.S. military operations and keeps the focus on al-Qaeda, while at
the same time encouraging political power-sharing, economic development
and diplomatic engagement by other countries in the region.

Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Progressive
Caucus's Afghanistan Taskforce, told me this report is critical, "given
Washington's near-silence on alternatives to" the current strategy.
Honda and his taskforce colleagues have called for the creation of a
congressionally mandated Af-Pak Study Group.

Indeed, Hoh said the goal of the report is to lay the groundwork for
funding of a bipartisan congressional study group by March, ensuring
that an alternative to the Pentagon's strategy is available when the
administration's flexible deadline to begin withdrawing troops arrives
in July 2011. In these next critical months, the study group will focus
on establishing itself as a counterpoint to the status quo approach to
the war, reaching out to legislators across party lines in an effort to
develop a bipartisan consensus. Members will also make themselves
available to news media, which have in their coverage of the war too
often failed to include the views of experts who oppose the White
House/Petraeus strategy. I hope this report will also be used as an
organizing vehicle by peace and justice groups who have been calling for
a similar change in course.

It seems certain that Petraeus's December report to Congress and the
administration will argue that his counterinsurgency strategy is new and
must be given time. The study group's members challenge that notion.

"People have to understand this is not a new strategy from Gen.
Petraeus," Hoh said. "We don't 'finally have it right.' We've been
saying that for years now. All we're doing is adding more troops, which
is just making the problem larger. Just because Gen. Petraeus got there a
couple months ago doesn't mean the clock should be reset."

The administration's strategy is flawed and is costing too much in
treasure and lives. This report offers a clear alternative that is in
our national security interest.

© 2021 Washington Post
Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel is an American editor and publisher. She is the editor, publisher, and part-owner of the magazine The Nation. She has been the magazine's editor since 1995.


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