May 20, 2010 9:52AM

Is the War in Afghanistan Winnable?

The Economist is featuring an online debate this week around the proposition "This house believes that the war in Afghanistan is winnable." John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security agrees. Peter Galbraith takes the opposing view.

The organizers of the event invited me to contribute my two cents. Excerpts of my essay ("Featured Guest," on the right side of the page) are posted below:

The appropriate question is not whether the war is winnable. If we define victory narrowly, if we are willing to apply the resources necessary to have a reasonable chance of success, and if we have capable and credible partners, then of course the war is winnable. Any war is winnable under these conditions.

None of these conditions exist in Afghanistan, however. Our mission is too broadly construed. Our resources are constrained. The patience of the American people has worn thin. And our Afghan partners are unreliable and unpopular with their own people.

Given this, the better question is whether the resources that we have already ploughed into Afghanistan, and those that would be required in the medium to long term, could be better spent elsewhere. They most certainly could be.


America and its allies must narrow their focus in Afghanistan. Rather than asking if the war is winnable, we should ask instead if the war is worth winning. And we should look for alternative approaches that do not require us to transform what is a deeply divided, poverty stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, cohesive and stable electoral democracy.

If we start from the proposition that victory is all that matters, we are setting ourselves up for ruin. We can expect an endless series of calls to plough still more resources—more troops, more civilian experts and more money, much more money—into Afghanistan. Such demands demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the public's tolerance for an open-ended mission with ill-defined goals.

More importantly, a disdain for a focused strategy that balances ends, ways and means betrays an inability to think strategically about the range of challenges facing America today. After having already spent more than eight and a half years in Afghanistan, pursuing a win-at-all-costs strategy only weakens our ability to deal with other security challenges elsewhere in the world.

The other guest contributor is Bruce Riedel from Brookings. He had a hand in shaping the Obama administration's strategy, and therefore is a reliable "yes" vote for continuing the war.

Sentiment so far has been running nearly three to one against the proposition. Most of the comments reject the premise, and a few doubt U.S./NATO's intentions. Nagl has at least one more bite at the apple to turn things around, but the prospects don't look good. The key weaknesses in the pro-war position are the lack of credible local partners in Afghanistan, and the uncooperative (and, often, counterproductive) role played by Pakistan. Nagl focuses chiefly on the former, and Riedel on the latter; they ultimately fail, however, to offer credible solutions to either problem.

We all hope that things turn around in Afghanistan, and soon. But, as Galbraith points out, hope is not a strategy. I'm among those actively searching for an alternative definition of "winning" that does not envision tens of thousands of U.S. troops being in Afghanistan for another eight (or 80) years.