Though President Barack Obama last week gave his "Combat Operations in Iraq Are Over" speech from the Oval Office, in the hope that anxious Americans would feel that nationally unnerving, messy foreign military entanglements are being reduced, his focus should have been Afghanistan - where the hemorrhage of U.S. interests and resources is only worsening.
Despite acceding to the Pentagon's surge in troop levels, huge budget requests and civilian nation-builders, as well as the deployment of a superstar general, Obama's current approach in Afghanistan is failing.
To this end, a bipartisan group of leading academics, business executives, former government officials, policy practitioners and journalists - the Afghanistan Study Group - has discussed and debated over the last year to develop an alternative set of policy options for the president and his advisers - timed for the coming "review" of Afghan policies.
The Afghanistan Study Group proposal reframes the connection between America's core foreign policy and national security objectives with both resources and a desire to enhance U.S. options rather than watch them - and the perception of U.S. power - become increasingly eroded.
Far from admitting defeat, the report acknowledges the many limitations of a military solution in a region where U.S. interests lie in political stability. The group's recommended policy seeks to shift resources to focus on U.S. foreign policy strengths in concert with the international community to promote reconciliation among the warring parties, advance economic development and encourage region-wide diplomatic engagement.
The group's report can be downloaded here and is due to be released at the New America Foundation Wednesday.
We base these conclusions on the following key points raised in the study group's research and discussions:
- The United States has only two vital interests in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region: preventing Afghanistan from being a "safe haven" from which Al Qaeda or other extremists can organize more effective attacks on the U.S. homeland and ensuring that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal does not fall into hostile hands.
- Protecting American interests does not require a U.S. military victory over the Taliban. A Taliban takeover is unlikely, even if Washington reduces its military commitment. The Taliban is a rural insurgency rooted in Afghanistan's Pashtu population, and it had succeeded due, in part, to the disenfranchisement of rural Pashtuns. The Taliban seized power in the 1990s under an unusual set of circumstances that no longer exist and are unlikely to be repeated.
- There is no significant Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today, and the risk of a new "safe haven" there under more "friendly" Taliban rule is overstated. Should an Al Qaeda cell regroup in Afghanistan, the United States would have residual military capability in the region sufficient to track and destroy it.
The group's core recommendations do not include full, immediate troop withdrawal, but rather a decrease in the military footprint in Afghanistan.
The five key recommendations are:
1. Emphasize power sharing and political inclusion. Washington should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.
2. Downsize and eventually end military operations in Southern Afghanistan and reduce the U.S. military footprint. The United States should draw down its military presence - which radicalizes Pashtuns and aids 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. They can be ready to act should Al Qaeda attempt to relocate elsewhere or to 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 from being a permanently failed state that exports instability.
One of the most disturbing quick zingers that illustrates this war's massive management mess is that the price tag to U.S. taxpayers has soared to nearly $100 billion annually. Compare that to the astonishing fact that Afghanistan's gross national product is only one-seventh of this - $14 billion.
Washington is now spending more on Afghanistan - and failing in its efforts - than the entire annual cost of the new U.S. health insurance program. This is money that could be used to better counter global terrorist threats far away from Afghanistan, reduce the $1.4 trillion annual deficit, repair and modernize a large portion of U.S. infrastructure, radically enhance U.S. educational investment, launch a massive new Manhattan Project-like effort for energy alternatives research - or put approximately 2 million Americans back to work.
Thousands of American and allied personnel have been killed or gravely wounded. Too many innocent Afghans and Pakistanis have become victims - assuring unpredictable blowback in the years ahead.
The U.S. interests at stake in Afghanistan do not warrant this level of sacrifice. Obama had justified expanding the military commitment by saying the goal was eradicating Al Qaeda. Yet Al Qaeda is no longer a significant presence in Afghanistan. The government's own analysts now estimate that somewhere between a few dozen to a few hundred hard-core Al Qaeda members remain in the entire Af/Pak theater, largely hiding in Pakistan's northwestern provinces.
U.S. armed forces have fought bravely and well. Their dedication is unquestioned. But we should not ask them to make sacrifices unnecessary to our core national interests - particularly when doing so threatens long-term needs and priorities both at home and abroad.
America and its allies are mired in a civil war in Afghanistan and are struggling to establish an effective central government in a country that has long been fragmented and decentralized.
No matter how desirable this objective might be in the abstract, it is not essential to U.S. security and it is not a goal for which the U.S. military is well suited.
There is no clear definition of what would comprise "success" in this endeavor. Creating a unified Afghan state would require committing many more American lives and many hundreds of billions of additional U.S. dollars for many years to come.
Prospects for success are dim. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently warned, "Afghanistan has never been pacified by foreign forces."
The 2010 winter offensive in Marjah was inconclusive, and a supposedly "decisive" summer offensive in Kandahar has been delayed and the expectations downgraded. U.S. and allied casualties reached an all-time high in July, and several NATO allies have announced plans to withdraw their forces.
The Afghanistan conflict has now grown disproportionally large in the global portfolio of U.S. national security concerns, outweighing and tilting attention and resources away from other troubles in the Middle East, from Iran, from North Korea, from the global consequences of an ascending and more powerful China.
Though Obama is more likeable, and often more inspiring, than the fictional captain in the Melville novel, Afghanistan has now become the Moby Dick to Obama's Ahab.
The current talk among Af-Pak watchers is that U.S. forces can't stay and U.S. forces can't leave.
This is chase-the-tail thinking that embraces paralysis as the only option. In the spirit of what Joe Biden and Leslie Gelb offered in their controversial - but substantive - recommendations for Iraq, the Afghanistan Study Group offers a coherent alternative course for U.S. policymakers to consider.
As Gelb noted in a recent article, in the midst of the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, "I can't win, and I can't get out."
Obama needs to make sure that his presidency - and the nation - don't find themselves wrecked by a replay of this same theme.