Commentary

Stop Treading Water in Afghanistan

The rogue U.S. soldier’s massacre Sunday of 16 Afghan villagers — nine of them children — follows the violent anti-American protests unleashed in Afghanistan over the burning of Qurans by American soldiers.

This continued violence reveals the latent animosity that persists between foreign and indigenous forces. Accelerating the withdrawal of U.S. military forces would most likely save us from a costly strategic defeat in the future.

By October, the roughly 90,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan are due to shrink to 68,000, with a complete exit by 2014. Though these moves are steps in the right direction, officials are still grasping for a protracted presence.

Washington seeks a bilateral arrangement that allows indefinite outposts (“joint bases”) with their Afghan counterparts. Indeed, plans for an extended presence, which would embed civilian and military advisers at bases and Afghan government ministries, call for even closer contact between Americans and Afghans. But a long-term strategic partnership between Washington and Kabul is a mission doomed to fail.

President Barack Obama should announce an accelerated drawdown of U.S. troops.”

The recent spiraling violence, accompanied by heightened mutual distrust and a dearth of local cultural knowledge, does not instill confidence in our victory. Each new crisis triggers yet another violent outburst fueled by public outrage.

More troops, more money, more time and more resources are unlikely to change these underlying realities and could exacerbate them. Foreign-led efforts to resuscitate Afghan institutions have made only limited progress toward enabling that country to function logistically without the continued assistance of the international community.

Kabul’s dependence on foreign patronage not only undercuts its domestic legitimacy, but its tightly centralized system of government undermines local ownership of the development process by the country’s distinct and insular regions.

An indefinite U.S. military presence in this landlocked country could also be challenged by the tenuous supply lines. After Pakistan closed two border crossings into Afghanistan, the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have been using the Northern Distribution Network, a patchwork of roads, ports and railways connecting the Baltic and Caspian regions to Afghanistan, via Russia and Central Asia.

This patchwork road system means far higher transit costs — $104 million a month compared with the Pakistani alternative of $17 million a month, according to one Pentagon official. As Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan no longer holds the strategic importance to match America’s exorbitant investment.

Indeed, in addition to fears of insurgents ambushing vulnerable supply lines, commercial sources familiar with the NDN claim that the Uzbekistan government is “continuously uncooperative” when it comes to shipping goods into Afghanistan. One can only hope that Washington can retain the consent of relevant governments until U.S. forces withdraw by discouraging neighboring states from following Pakistan’s lead in closing their supply routes as well.

Rather than continue to tread water in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama should announce an accelerated drawdown of U.S. troops. Sharing intelligence with allies and partners, scrutinizing people trying to enter the United States who may be linked to terrorist groups and relying on targeted raids against Al Qaeda leaders — as opposed to local insurgents who aren’t trying to attack the U.S. — are the most efficient means of reducing the threat from terrorism.

Compared to drawn-out nation-building campaigns, targeted operations are the lesser of two evils. They don’t require tens of thousands of U.S. troops to occupy Afghanistan or any foreign country.

These operations are far less costly in terms of lives, money, time and effort than attempts to cultivate a foreign people’s allegiance to a rapacious and unpopular central government backed by foreign forces. Without a drastic change in strategy, the war in Afghanistan will continue to be a slow bleed.

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute. Robert Naiman is the policy director at Just Foreign Policy.