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September 09, 2010

A New Way Forward in Afghanistan?
Posted by Michael Cohen

There's a new report out this week from the Afghanistan Study Group, a collection of academics, think tankers and foreign policy specialists, offering a path forward for US policy in Afghanistan.

It's worth taking a look if only to read its diagnosis of the war, which from a narrow USFP perspective seems spot-on - we don't have vital interests in Afghanistan and the interests we do have can be furthered in ways other than deploying 100,000 troops in a futile counter-insurgency effort etc.

Of course, any regular reader of DA will know this is not a new argument. In fact, it seems most of Washington has concluded that the current war strategy for Afghanistan isn't working (not to mention the American people). To be honest, the conclusions drawn in this report would have been more helpful in 2009 and not 2010 (and they were certainly identifiable then). And am I the only person who finds it odd that the report signatories do not include a single Af/Pak regional specialist or even actual military analysts. Were Christine Fair, Gilles Dorronsorro and Austin Long unavailable?

But I suppose it can't hurt to remind people that the current strategy is tangential to actual US interests . . . and a bit FUBAR.

But, the big question is what to do differently - a true Plan B. And here the report fails to deliver (and actually could do more harm than good).

The authors first recommendation is to emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion. Seems like a good idea, but there is no sense of how we actually get there. Indeed, the report authors make the following recommendation - as a first step:

The Afghan Parliament should be given confirmation authority for major appointments, district councils should be elected, budgeting authority decentralized, and elected provincial representatives should be included in the national level council that determines the portion of funds distributed.  The ethnic base of the Afghan army should be broadened. More generally, governance should depend more heavily on local, traditional, and community-based structures.

How will this possibly be realized? Right now the US has virtually no leverage over Karzai. And yet this report, which goes on to suggest that the US reduce its troop presence to 30,000 by 2012 should impose/force/cajole a whole series of governance changes that would fundamentally undermine the Karzai government's hold on power. Why exactly would the Karzai government go along with this? Short answer: they won't.

The better course would be to recognize our diminished leverage and instead of putting conditions on Karzai for negotiations we should be giving him carte blanche to move forward with them. The only US-related condition of such talks would be that there can be no AQ safe haven in Afghanistan - and that the US will be able to maintain a military presence for fighting al Qaeda in Pakistan. Achieving that deal will not be easy and wil involve negotiating with a whole set of actors from the Karzai government, the Taliban, Karzai's own political coalition, the Pakistanis, India etc. But the US should not be preventing these negotiations from proceeding: we should be encouraging them.

As it is now, the military seems unwilling to go along with this idea until they "reverse the Taliban's momentum" - another supremely bad idea that is eerily reminiscent of our failed strategy in Vietnam to get the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table.

Along these lines, I like the fact that the report endorses the idea of reducing the US military footprint in the South, but shouldn't such a unilateral move be twinned with an effort to move forward with political negotiations? And aren't there interim steps that merit consideration before full withdrawal - calling off the Kandahar offensive? Halting the killing of mid-level Taliban? Withdrawing from certain provinces before a full scale retreat? Getting out the south and east is a worthwhile recommendation; but how you get there - and what you demand in return - matters too. The report simply fails to wrestle with these questions. 

The report also calls on the US to shift its military focus to fighting al Qaeda and enhancing domestic security. Aren't we doing the former pretty effectively right now and the latter feels so . . . 2004. This is just political window-dressing - sure we're a bunch of liberal academics, but we still want to kill people - and a pretty transparent example.

The recommendation of "encouraging economic development" seems like nation building by a different name and considering that the US hasn't even been able to cobble together contributions for a reintegration plan . . . well how are we going to find the money to support "an internationally led" effort to promote economic development? And doesn't such a plan augur a long-term US presence in the country that goes beyond mere counter-terrorism? And doesn't economic development rely on long-term security, which theoretically only the US and ISAF can provide?

All this begs the question, what do the authors see as the end game for Afghanistan? I find it striking, for example, that the report argues 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.

There is another interest that deserves consideration as well - preventing destabilization in Afghanistan and ensuring that the country does not have a reprise of the violent civil war that destroyed Afghanistan in the 1990s. Indeed, the surest way to prevent an al Qaeda safe haven from taking root in Afghanistan or Pakistan's nuclear arsenal from falling into the wrong hands (both extreme long-shots, mind you) is for the United States to leave Afghanistan as stable as possible.

The report basically punts on that question.

The focus of the US mission needs to shift from counter-insurgency to devising an end game strategy that reduces the US mission in Afghanistan and focuses, above all, on preventing Afghanistan from descending back into civil war (I'll have more thoughts on how to achieve that goal in the next few weeks).

I doubt the ASG folks would really disagree with that approach, but this mish-mash of recommendations that seems to have very little connective thread doesn't really do much to get us closer to that goal. Maybe that wasn't the point; and the ASG authors want to sketch this out going forward? But it begs the question of what exactly they are waiting for?

Considering how much time and energy went into this report it's a bit disappointing that at the end I'm left unsure as to precisely what immediate steps they are actually recommending - and what their end game actually looks like. Or even worse, fairly convinced that, at best, only one of these proposals is even remotely actionable.

What this report feels like is that you have a bunch of people who believe that the US mission in Afghanistan is failing and that the US needs to get out and the war is really bad and we have other interests elsewhere and we are squandering resources on a conflict that is tangential to US interests . . . and oh, by the way, here are some platitudinous ideas for how to do that. Again, that would have been useful a year ago: less so today when rigorously researched alternatives are desperately needed.

And I wonder and worry if the overall result of this whole exercise is that it makes war critics look unserious. By devoting so little time and specificity to the "new way forward" it could lead war supporters in the military and elsewhere to argue that opponents of the Afghanistan war don't have a real strategy for safeguarding US interests and disengaging the United States from the conflict.

I understand that the Afghanistan Study Group will continue under the leadership of Matthew Hoh. I hope that they will take the time to answer some of the questions raised above - and flesh out the complexities of what a real Plan B strategy for Afghanistan looks like. Because, so far, I'm not sure they've done it.


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"am I the only person who finds it odd that the report signatories do not include a single Af/Pak regional specialist or even actual military analysts[?]"

Um, no: Likewise for many of your points.

Everybody in the policy-making community seems to have, once again, been distracted by the shell-game trap of misdirecting the earnest attention of the players. Looking so deeply at the internals of Afghanistan -- governance, corruption, capacity, development, etc. -- diverts our attention from the drivers of this conflict, of which everybody is very familiar but hesitant to offer prescriptions. Those are: Pakistan, ISI, Pakistan, ISI, Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, ISI, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, ISI, and Saudi Arabia. Are we, as a nation, so paralyzed by our fear of these culprits becoming cross with us that we can forcefully, and forcibly, address them in any meaningful way? Or is that we are hesitant to be perceived to be cooperating too much with our natural allies in this effort, India, Iran, and Russia? I hope neither of those factors is true, but it's hard to draw any other conclusion. One key issue, then, is how to deal with Pakistan, and its hatred of India as it is absurdly manifested in Kashmir. The other issue is how to tell our masters in Saudi Arabia that although their help in supporting a radical Jihadist movement was once greatly appreciated, it no longer is and it has to stop, please, please, please.

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