I'm speaking on a panel at CPAC tomorrow discussing Afghanistan ("How to Think about Afghanistan," Marriott Ballroom, 2:30 to 3:15 pm), and I'm inclined to include a few new data points, and one fresh anecdote, in my brief remarks.
The first piece of information has to do with money. Our deepening military presence in Afghanistan will cost American taxpayers in excess of $100 billion in FY 2011. Some estimates put the figure closer to $120 billion. This in a country with an official GDP of about $16.6 billion (and not more than $30 billion using purchasing power parity).
The second thing to consider is the current mission in Afghanistan. President Obama claimed in his December 2010 policy review that the focus of the U.S. mission is al Qaeda, but it doesn't take 100,000 U.S. troops and a few tens of thousands more of allied troops and civilians to hunt a couple hundred al Qaeda, most of whom are in Pakistan. Claims that al Qaeda and the Taliban are synonymous, and therefore that preventing the Taliban from returning to power is essential to preventing future terrorist attacks in the United States, were always dubious. A just-released report casts still further doubt, and recommends renewed attempts to peel the two unlikely allies apart from one another. That wise strategy would not require us to build a capable, credible government on the shaky foundation that is Hamid Karzai.
I'm likely to close with some recent polling statistics that reveal deepening public discontent with the Afghan mission. (For example, here and here.) Even many conservatives, a majority in some surveys, question the known cost and the anticipated benefit. They worry that the mission — standing up a functioning nation-state, complete with a national army — is likely to fail and would not be worth the time and money that would be required to eventually succeed. ("Eventually" being synonymous with "many decades.")
An episode from Cato's hugely successful City Seminar in Naples, FL earlier this week supports the polling data. Cato President (and Beloved Founder) Ed Crane reports that his call to abolish the Department of Education, HUD, agriculture subsidies, and countless other unnecessary federal programs elicited predictable cheers from the overflow crowd of mostly affluent, conservative voters.
Then I said we could save untold billions by bringing the brave young men and women in our armed forces home from that godforsaken hell hole known as Afghanistan. Loudest applause of the day.
Who will attempt to capitalize on this simmering discontent? Which aspiring presidential candidate will see the potential in appealing to conservatives frustrated with nation-building in the Hindu Kush? Most important, irrespective of the politics, which would-be commander-in-chief will realize that spending nearly $10 billion every month in Afghanistan undermines rather than advances U.S. national security? Who can articulate a credible alternative that focuses laser-like on al Qaeda, on disrupting its operations, and on killing or capturing its leaders, and leaves wooly-headed nation building to the do-gooders?
Strategy should not be dictated by politics, but I think that the people who claim public support is faltering because President Obama hasn't spoken often enough (or forcefully enough, or earnestly enough, or whatever) about Afghanistan are themselves fighting a losing battle. At the end of the day the problem is the product, not the pitchman. The nation-building mission in Afghanistan is unwise, unnecessary, and deeply unconservative.
Anyway, if you happen to be at CPAC, or are able to watch the proceedings online, you might want to check out the discussion. Other speakers include Anthony Cordesman of Center for Strategic and International Studies, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West, and former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, as moderator. Should be interesting.