A clock has been quietly ticking away in the Oval Office throughout the hubbub of the upcoming midterm elections: the countdown to withdrawing from Afghanistan. It's supposed to happen around next July if conditions on the ground permit. President Obama has in the meantime been the subject of attacks that seem to me misplaced. Marine Gen. James Conway vented his anxieties that the theoretical deadline was giving sustenance to the Taliban; in his view it will be years before the Afghans are ready to assume full control of security (as the Iraqis have more or less done). Bob Woodward, in his new book Obama's Wars, paints a picture of the president as a reluctant warrior, deeply skeptical of the war, who looked hard for choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out.
We committed ourselves to a major military effort despite the fact that Afghanistan is no longer al Qaeda's primary base of operations, as it was in 2001. That has shifted to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other countries to the point where al Qaeda is no longer dependent on any one country for its operational base. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda's numbers are insignificant, perhaps 50 to 100 core members, according to CIA Director Leon Panetta. Securing Afghanistan, in other words, is no longer the solution to al Qaeda.
Obama, who asserted that the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity and not a war of choice (contrary to the view of Richard Haass at the Council on Foreign Relations), decided to pursue a much more aggressive strategy than that of the Bush administration, whose goals for Afghanistan were modest.
The Bush administration concluded it would be extraordinarily difficult to impose a desirable political solution on Afghanistan, not to speak of the challenge of creating a coalition large enough to control the country. The administration's objective was limited to neutralizing al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters. As a result, the United States went into Afghanistan in 2001 with a small, well-funded, covert action program of CIA operators who restored contacts with Afghan tribal leaders and resistance forces; with U.S. Special Forces and air power playing key roles, the coalition managed to topple the Taliban in a matter of weeks.
Obama, by contrast, made conventional U.S. forces the main combatants in the war against the Taliban. Further, he broadened our objectives to become involved in nation-building. As he put it, "We must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future." The counterinsurgency strategy that he adopted seeks to win over the population by assuring their security and creating conditions for political stability. The United States took on the daunting challenge of trying to invent a national army where no nation exists, as Afghans tend to fight only for their clans and ethnic groups. The plan sought to isolate militants and engage in a wider effort to develop Afghanistan's economy.
The Obama administration not only changed the direction of the war effort, but increased its scale and costs by tripling the American military effort. This will require the investment of hundreds of billions of additional U.S. dollars for many years before it succeeds—if it ever does. And that's not counting the thousands of Americans and allied personnel who might be killed or gravely wounded; more than 2,000 members of the U.S.-led coalition and NATO forces have already died. Even now, the astounding cost to the United States has soared to approximately $100 billion annually (at a time when we desperately need investment at home). Compare that to Afghanistan's GDP, which is only one-seventh the total, or $14 billion.
The core concern about this kind of effort is that it requires a shared purpose between the population and foreign armies, which have historically been rejected by Afghans. Today we seem to be creating more enemies by the day, even as our soldiers continue to die.
Meanwhile, so much of the money we now pump into Afghanistan is being diverted to the Afghan elite and especially to President Hamid Karzai's friends and family. The other warlords and factions who need to be paid off are literally being shortchanged—one of the many reasons why Karzai is losing so much legitimacy and authority. And despite all our commitments, the Karzai government treats us with little affection and less respect, even though it is clearly incapable of effective governance or developing the military forces that could prevent the Taliban's return.
Virtually every phase of the war is going badly, with the Afghan government and army showing few signs of being able or even willing to take over. The Obama surge is not working as the Bush surge worked in Iraq. Witness the inability to effectively complete our offensive in Marjah and the delay of our supposedly decisive summer offensive in Kandahar. The chances are that our ground forces will not be able to impose an acceptable political reality in Afghanistan within any acceptable time frame.
That is why the predominant view among military experts and diplomats is that the current counterinsurgency strategy will not work, leading to the belief among regional actors and NATO allies that we will, indeed, pull out beginning next year.
The result is that our opponents play for time, since it may be decades before Afghanistan achieves the political cohesion, stability, and governance structures to develop the kind of conventional state that we are talking about. The Afghanization of the war looks to be a fanciful strategy, as it seems to be impossible to persuade the Afghan people to take greater ownership of the war instead of sitting on the sidelines. The Taliban intend to be there when our patience runs out. As the Middle East expert Fouad Ajami wrote this summer, the East has "an unsentimental feel for the intentions and the staying power of strangers."
However, leaving has huge political and security costs. The very increase in our commitment makes it that much more difficult to walk away. Such a withdrawal might lead to the collapse of the Karzai government and a Taliban takeover of much of the country. This would be a disaster for NATO and its efforts, as well as a major strategic setback for the United States in its global struggle against terrorism. It would reduce Pakistan's incentives to eliminate the safe havens it is giving the Taliban on its own territory.
There is an alternative. We could develop a covert plan focusing on forging the kind of relationships necessary to keep Afghanistan from reemerging as an al Qaeda staging ground once our forces depart. Why continue a strategy distressingly similar to the failed policies of the Russians, who also deployed a large and visible occupying army? We do it with more concern for the people than did the Soviets, but every accidental death—like the recent killing of two children—is a thousand-fold multiplier against us.
The alternative is to direct funds and arms to tribal leaders and warlords willing to fight the terrorists and attract Taliban fighters away from their cause. This would be easier than training Afghans to work in an organized army. Many of them cannot read, write, or drive; the officers reportedly steal their enlisted men's salaries; the soldiers extort money from civilians or sell off their American supplies for personal gain; and recruits tend to go AWOL once they get their first leave.
Meanwhile, at the national level, the extraordinary corruption of the Karzai administration, including its involvement in the opium trade, is a deterrent to developing grass-roots support. Without a legitimate Afghan government, there is no political end state that is achievable at a reasonable cost.
Afghanistan is a tribal society, not a nation-state. Tribal interests are often easier to accommodate with cash and other assets that help the tribal leaders maintain their power. Further, these leaders understand better how to maintain control in a land divided by impossible geography and immutable tribal rivalries. The best way to recruit them is to be able to provide the provincial warlords with funds (effectively bribing them), as well as sending out occasional punitive expeditions backed by Predator drone attacks to eliminate al Qaeda leaders. Such a covert program would cost vastly less for our military in terms of both lives and treasure. We simply may have to accept the limits on what we can do. We don't have a moral obligation to do what is impossible.
Pakistan is a critical player. Pakistanis regard Afghanistan as a necessary corridor to Muslim-dominated Central Asia and central to what they believe is an existential struggle with India, which they fear will "surround" them by expanding its influence over the Afghans. Further, Pakistan may have over 100 nuclear weapons. Surely some portion of the billions of dollars that we could now extract from our Afghanistan commitment could be set aside as an additional incentive for Pakistan and the Pakistani military to show greater concern for our interests and to be more responsive to our needs.
Another critical incentive would be to provide Pakistan with increased textile quotas for exports to the United States. This would provide thousands upon thousands of jobs for Pakistani women and would be a huge political gain for the Pakistani government. To date these increased quotas have been blocked by narrow congressional interests, and this must be overcome.
None of the choices President Obama faces are good. They are choices between bad and worse; the choice, I'd say, between the evil of two lessers. He is correct to make sure to be thinking how best we can reduce our commitment for the sake of our blood and our treasure. The president understands that if it is true, as it seems, that the longer we stay, the more we are resented, then devising a realistic exit strategy is inescapable.