Note: This is part of a strategic dialogue on Afghanistan. You can see Ed Corcoran’s piece here.

For years, the war in Afghanistan has been in crisis. But now with a failed Afghan election, the resurgence of the Taliban as a political power, NATO allies withdrawing from the battlefield, and Pakistan’s tribal areas under increasing influence from the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the situation looks worse than ever. Obama and his team are spinning their wheels trying to devise a policy to right the sinking ship, but the most sensible solution, for Afghans and U.S. citizens, is to start planning a way out.

As U.S. and NATO troops start the ninth year of war, there is little progress to be shown. This year has proven to be the most deadly for U.S. and coalition troops since the war began. Over 1,500 Afghan civilians have died this year and more than 450 Afghan security forces have died.

Sadly, the sacrifices these solders made have not resulted in better conditions for Afghans on the ground. Agricultural production is at its lowest since the war began, only 23% of the population has access to clean drinking water, and 40% lives below the poverty line. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is 44 years. Three million Afghans have fled their country. According to a UN threat assessment, 40% of Afghanistan is today either Taliban-controlled or a high-risk area for insurgent attacks.

Beyond the human toll, the war is taking a severe financial hit on the United States. To date, the U.S. has spent more than $220 billion in Afghanistan. Over 90% of that spending has been for the military. Today, the U.S. is spending $4 billion a month in Afghanistan and has eclipsed the costs of Iraq for the first time.

But policymakers in Washington don’t see Afghanistan being in crisis for these reasons. Instead, the focus is on the tension between the White House and the Department of Defense on two key questions: what is the proper mission for troops and should the United States send additional soldiers?

Few players in Washington are asking the most important questions, is there a role for troops at this point at all, what does an exit strategy look like and when can we get there?

Beltway Bickering

Running on a platform that stressed that Afghanistan was the “good war,” President Obama not surprisingly authorized a troop increase for Afghanistan of 21,000 soldiers just two months into office. He made this decision on the heels of no less than eight strategy reviews conducted during the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. Coupled with his troop increase, Obama issued his own five point plan in March focused on “a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

In May of 2009, Obama tapped General Stanley McChrystal to take over as commander of the forces in Afghanistan. Formerly head of Joint Special Operations Command, McChrystal came to the job with high marks for his role in directing the military’s clandestine special operations in Iraq. When he came officially on board in June, McChrystal started yet another policy review.

Delivered to Obama on August 30, the review set off a firestorm at the White House and in the media. In part, the controversy revolved around the leaking of the classified report by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward on September 20. But the real debate unfolded around McChrystal’s statement that if he didn’t get reinforcements his mission would “likely result in failure.”

The report exposed an existing divide between the military and civilian policymakers, with the brass supporting McChrystal’s assessment for more troops and the civilians wary of an escalation. But the leak deepened this divide, as controversy brewed about who leaked the report, and more importantly, why.

The divide over the next steps in Afghanistan extends outside of Washington as well with a new USA Today poll indicating that 50% of Americans oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan, a 15% drop in support from March, when Obama ordered more troops. And where perhaps it matters most, in Afghanistan, support is even lower. A February 2009 ABC/BBC/ARD poll found that only 18%of Afghans support increasing the number of U.S. troops in their country.

On September 26, a spokesperson confirmed that McChrystal submitted a formal request for more troops but refused to comment on the number of additional troops requested. However, estimates of McChrystal’s request range from 10,000 to 45,000 troops. Paul Pillar, national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, dryly noted that if the administration requests the upper range then “the US will reach the level of the Russians at the peak of their deployment in the eighties: more than 100,000.”

What Mission Can Be Accomplished?

The president has voiced some concerns about McChrystal’s assessment. The Wall Street Journal reported in late September that “President Barack Obama…voiced skepticism that more troops would make a difference in Afghanistan, suggesting he might not rubber-stamp military officials’ expected request to send more forces to that country.”

Aware of the controversy within the administration and the public, Obama has scheduled at least five meetings with his national security team over the next two weeks to reexamine the strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Adding further tension is yet another request for additional war spending that lawmakers in the House and Senate expect to complete in the next month.

But the question remains, even if McChrystal gets all of the troops he wants, is the mission possible? While it seems that a narrow mission that Obama proposed back in March to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan” could be within the grasp of the United States and NATO, McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy seems unobtainable, even in his own review. He notes that the Afghan state is too weak to build the support needed for a robust counterinsurgency campaign and that NATO may not be well trained, equipped, or properly motivated for success.

Indeed, Afghanistan is causing many to question NATO’s ability to last much beyond its 60th anniversary this year.
Furthermore, McChrystal’s plan is highly dependent on the training of the Afghan National Army (ANA). Such training has been a dismal failure in the past eight years, even as the United States has spent $17.6 billion instructing the ANA. Saying that we now can do better is a dubious proposition at best. Rebuilding the Afghan military is no small task, no matter how many trainers McChrystal would like to send.

The alternative suggested by many of the earlier strategic reviews and now championed by Vice President Joe Biden, is to narrow the mission to focus on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, essentially calling for action to stop Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. Indeed, this is the counter-terrorism strategy that President Bush pursued with little success. The problem with even this more limited objective is that the United States or NATO could not achieve it without staying in Afghanistan forever. As long as the United States and NATO forces are there in great numbers, it won’t be claimed as a safe haven. But when forces leave, al-Qaeda would simply return.

The inertia of the last eight years is hard to overcome. In some sense, it’s more difficult with Democrats both in the White House and running Congress. If Obama were to withdraw from Afghanistan and an attack occurred against the United States, the party fears that it would stand accused of being weak on defense for another 40 years. On the other side of the coin, doubling down on George Bush’s war by sending more troops and resources has little chance of success. Even if it did succeed, such a strategy would likely further damage the U.S. economy, military, and our standing in the world in the process.

Another option is needed on the table — a clear and measurable timetable for withdrawal.

Avoiding the Graveyard of Empires

Afghanistan has been far too often called the “Graveyard of Empires.” Although the referenceapplies to a much different time in the world, it may be applicable once again since the only two options under discussion would not likely bring a successful conclusion to the war. General McChrystal’s plan offers no timetable or exit strategy, beyond warning that the next 12-18 months are critical—a timeframe that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman bandied about so freely in Iraq that estimates like McChrystal’s became known as “Friedman Units.” And Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has rejected outright a timetable for withdrawal. But with NATO partners Britain, France, and Germany calling for a timeline, this option should be examined more closely.

The timetable that was set in Iraq indicates that such an approach can be useful in extricating the United States from a bad position. Most importantly, it begins to disarm the Taliban’s argument that the “occupiers” will never leave. Calling for a timetable for withdrawal also recognizes that at some point Afghanistan, like Iraq and almost all other wars, will end with a negotiated peace treaty.

Figuring out what that treaty should say and constructing a timetable to meet those conditions should be the next step in Afghanistan. Given the lack of legitimacy for the Karzai government and the relative political strength of the Taliban, negotiations must include a wide range of Afghans. Key principles for a treaty should include:

Deny al-Qaeda Safe Haven. Most analysts would argue that keeping Afghanistan (and other countries across the globe) free of al-Qaeda and terrorist networks should be a primary objective for global security. But the manner in which this can be achieved is under fierce debate. Occupation and options for open invasion whenever deemed necessary should be off the table. Instead, relying on the power in the United Nations Security Council and the provisions of Chapter VII provide nation states the opportunity to adequately protect themselves from imminent attack. Coupled with an international effort to track and capture members of terrorist networks, this should provide the United States and the international community with the strongest response possible. One primary example of this was the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was not nabbed in a military raid but by combined police work.

Too much of the debate has focused on who rules Afghanistan and not on our goal of isolating al-Qaeda. The United States shouldn’t try to determine who can be in the government, how it is chosen, or how it rules, so long as that government abides by an agreement not to harbor al-Qaeda, and to work with the international community to enforce that agreement. The Taliban itself is not a threat to the United States.

Commit to Development. Afghanistan is one of the most underdeveloped nations in the world. Funding for development so far has been far below needed levels. The country urgently needs basic infrastructure. Without roads, access to markets, better agricultural inputs, and available credit, local businesses can’t start up or thrive. Such levels of commerce are needed to help combat the lucrative drug trade and raise the population out of poverty.

With few natural resources and a government highly dependent on international contributions, dedicated funding from the international community is needed. However, aid provided so far has not been successful. Too many projects are planned, designed, and implemented with far too little involvement from Afghans. Failure to learn from Greg Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea, where the success of Mortenson’s development projects are dependent on working hand-in-hand with the local population, has doomed many of these projects. Aid should go directly to Afghan led organizations, coupled with strong auditing by international agencies.

Withdraw all Combat Troops. Foreign troops on the ground (and drone attacks from the air) have been the biggest irritant to Afghan citizens and have been the most important tool for recruiting in terrorist networks. A commitment to withdrawing all combat troops will help deflate the recruitment for these groups. While growing the Afghan National Army is critical for the security of Afghanistan, the lack of human rights training, measures of accountability, and most important, a central government to report to, has severely undermined the legitimacy of these troops. Further training must be refocused and fall under a common set of guidelines, including oversight under the Leahy Law that suspends training funding for any groups involved in human rights abuses.

Separate Pakistan from Afghanistan. No essay on Afghanistan these days seems to omit the problems arising in Pakistan. It is wrong to see the distinct challenges facing these two countries as one struggle and the U.S. history in Pakistan requires a far different approach. The United States must address directly with Pakistan the flow of al-Qaeda and the Taliban into that country.

Clearly there are other steps to be taken, but these are the most important and should be the starting point for negotiations. As much as the citizens of United States and the world want President Obama to succeed in fixing Afghanistan, the policies that are under discussion are most likely to put us one more “Friedman Unit” away from a resolution. With more civilians and soldiers bound to perish during that time, it’s time for a fundamentally different approach — one that can greatly diminish the greatest threats to the United States and at the same time, start Afghanistan on the road to recovery.

Erik Leaver is a research fellow with Foreign Policy In Focus.

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