White Paper

Escaping the “Graveyard of Empires”: A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan

Given the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan, a definitive, conventional “victory” is not a realistic option. Denying a sanctuary to terrorists who seek to attack the United States does not require Washington to pacify the entire country, eradicate its opium fields, or sustain a long-term military presence in Central Asia. From the sky, U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles can monitor villages, training camps, and insurgent compounds. On the ground, the United States can retain a small number of covert operatives for intelligence gathering and discrete operations against specific targets, as well as an additional small group of advisers to train Afghan police and military forces. The United States should withdraw most of its forces from Afghanistan within the next 12 to 18 months and treat al Qaeda’s presence in the region as a chronic, but manageable, problem.

Washington needs to narrow its objectives to three critical tasks:

Security. Support, rather than supplant, indigenous security efforts by training and assisting the Afghan national army and police and, where appropriate, paying off or otherwise co-opting regional militias. Training should be tied to clear metrics. If those benchmarks are not achieved, Washington must cut its losses and cease further assistance. U.S. forces should not become Afghanistan’s perpetual crutch.

Intelligence and Regional Relations. Sustain intelligence operations in the region through aerial surveillance, covert operations, and ongoing intelligence-sharing with the Afghan and Pakistani governments. Seek cordial relations with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Russia and Iran, as each has the means to significantly undermine or facilitate progress in the country.

Drugs. Dial back an opium eradication policy to one that solely targets drug cartels affiliated with insurgents rather than one that targets all traffickers, including poor local farmers. Harassing the latter alienates a significant portion of the rural population.

Central Asia holds little intrinsic strategic value to the United States, and America’s security will not be endangered even if an oppressive regime takes over a contiguous fraction of Afghan territory. America’s objective has been to neutralize the parties responsible for the atrocities committed on 9/11. The United States should not go beyond that objective by combating a regional insurgency or drifting into an open-ended occupation and nation-building mission.

Most important, Afghanistan serves as the crossroads of Central Asia. From its invasion by Genghis Khan and his two-million strong Mongol hordes to the superpower proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union, Afghanistan’s trade routes and land-locked position in the middle of the region have for centuries rendered it vulnerable to invasion by external powers. Although Afghanistan has endured successive waves of Persian, Greek, Arab, Turk, Mongol, British, and Soviet invaders, no occupying power has ever successfully conquered it. There’s a reason why it has been described as the “graveyard of empires,” and unless America scales down its objectives, it risks meeting a similar fate.

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute who focuses on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at Cato, is the author of 8 and the editor of 10 books on international affairs. His most recent book is Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America.