It’s official. President Barack Obama now fully owns the war in Afghanistan. Standing alongside his military advisors and in front of the Washington press corps, he outlined a plan with “a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” While the goal and the five objectives to meet this goal are clear, they’re also unattainable and will likely result in the U.S. (and NATO) being trapped in the region for decades to come.

Searching for a solution in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in 2007, the National Security Council Principals Committee reexamined and reset U.S. objectives for Afghanistan. These essentially boiled down to establishing a democracy and a working capitalist state in which women were well-treated. With the military set to take the lead or a main support role to achieve these objectives, there was no way they could be achieved and, more importantly, there was no indication of when such a mission would be finished.

No less than eight strategy reviews have been conducted in the last several months. They’ve all concluded that the primary objective should be more limited, essentially calling for action to stop Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. The problem with even this more limited objective is that there is no way in which the United States or NATO could achieve it without staying forever. As long as the United States and NATO forces are there in great numbers, it won’t be a safe haven. But when forces leave, the opportunity would exist for it to roll back.

Obama’s plan, along with all eight strategy reviews, have missed the seven-plus years of our experience there. Red flags should have been raised as Obama outlined his five core objectives:


Since the invasion began the Afghans haven’t shown any propensity to take care of their own security. Even those military forces who have been trained by the United States and NATO freely allow Taliban to pass through their territory if they pay. The Afghan tradition of corruption is overwhelming. With the drug trade flourishing, there is little hope that these military forces could ever be paid enough to bring a stop to the temptations of corruption.

In a late March BBC interview, Afghan finance minister (and presidential candidate) Anwarulhaq Ahadisaid said the United States allowed corruption to come into the Afghanistan government. As with President Hamid Karzai, we see the pattern of denying any responsibility for corruption.

As Obama noted, 2008 was the deadliest for U.S. soldiers on the ground. It was also the deadliest for Afghans. In 2008, civilian casualties climbed 40%, topping 2,100. Public awareness of those casualties brought heightened anger at and opposition to the U.S. military presence, even beyond opposition to the specific attacks. Challenges grew around U.S. supply lines, and war objectives were increasingly recognized as unclear. As in Iraq, the use of roadside bombs and suicide bombers significantly increased. The increase in casualties corresponds directly with the increase in U.S. and NATO troop strength. More importantly, the “surge” of 17,000 troops further undermines the democratic principles needed for Afghanistan to stand up over time.

Rule of Law

The United States is responsible for a good portion of the lack of legitimacy for the Afghan government. The U.S.-managed presidential elections in 2004 were organized without meaningful input from the Afghan people. U.S. officials actively pressured a number of prominent candidates to drop out of the race to help ensure Karzai’s election. And while often unspoken, the occupation itself is the largest contributor to undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan government. It certainly didn’t help that once in power, Karzai gave senior police posts to former warlords and human rights abusers. Without a legitimate government, there is little hope for the rule of law to take effect.

Drug Trade

Clearly, the drug trade is harmful for Afghanistan. It fuels corruption in the Afghan government, contributes to the violence in the country, and presents a global health crisis. Yet Afghanistan is overwhelmingly dependent on the drug trade for its economy. The dependency on military solutions from the United States, NATO, and the UN fails to offer a credible alternative to the drug economy. Moreover, the militarization of drug control has failed to win “hearts and minds,” driving poor peasant farmers into the hands of the Taliban and the insurgency. Shifting away from dependency on the drug trade requires not only an economic transition plan for farmers but also a political plan for the elites who have gained power through the profitable trade. Obama’s plan fails to deal directly with these central challenges.


Heading into battle, the Bush administration promised to rebuild Afghanistan, transform its economy, and liberate its women from the oppression of the Taliban. These promises turned out to be hollow. In a country of 32 million, Afghanistan’s social indices rank it 174th out of 178 nations in the UNDP Human Development Index. Infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world — one child out of every four does not survive his or her fifth birthday. Two million primary school-aged children (60%) are out of school, an estimated 1.3 million of whom are girls. Only 23% of the entire population has access to safe drinking water and a mere 12% have access to sanitation facilities.

As in Iraq, reconstruction efforts have largely been U.S.-led and have been very unsuccessful. If we build something, the Afghans don’t have the skill to maintain it, and there are only two Afghan construction firms (the owners of which live in Dubai) capable of large-scale projects. Smaller scale projects have seen far greater success, in part because of their lack of association with the occupation. Furthermore, the scale of funding proposed by Obama is so small it’s unlikely to have the impact needed. He proposed only $5 billion over five years, hardly enough to build a nation and a functioning economy.

We often hear the argument that a nation can’t have development without security. There’s a profound connection that goes the other direction. It’s hard to imagine the United States being able to create an Afghan economy that will support a security force of over 200,000 (Obama’s objective). That means the security forces only exist as long as we pay, and the only way the Afghan government could continue to exist would be on our dollar.
Defeat al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while dangerous actors, must be recognized for what they really are: a band of 2,000–3,000 fighters and the remnants of a failed government that wasn’t very popular until it claimed the mantle of opposing occupation.

A Better Way Forward

An alternative, and much more achievable objective than those outlined in Obama’s plan would be to give the Afghans one more chance to take control of the situation and turn things around.

As the U.S. has done in Iraq, we should set a timetable for withdrawal. At the end of 12-18 months, the U.S. and NATO should withdraw. This should be conditioned, however. If Afghanistan were to become a safe haven once again for terrorist networks, the United States would retain the right to take action.

Americans have often let a “can-do” attitude get in the way of “shouldn’t-do.” Obama’s plan follows this sentiment. With the United States now being led down the pathway known as the “graveyard of empires,” Congress and the U.S. public should demand clear reporting on Obama’s objectives. And given the experience of the past seven years, our leaders should be ready to acknowledge that if Obama’s objectives aren’t being met, the only alternative is a timeline for withdrawal.

Sam Gardiner is a retired Air Force colonel who has taught military strategy and operations at the National War College, Air War College, and Naval War College. Erik Leaver is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the policy outreach director for Foreign Policy In Focus.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.