Afghanistan began as the “good war,” receiving nearunanimous backing in the United States and similar support in Europe. The objectives were clear: weaken or destroy Al Qaeda, which had attacked America; oust the Taliban, which had given Al Qaeda refuge; warn other regimes that cooperating with terrorists would leave them out of power.
The United States quickly achieved all these objectives. Al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. It is not certain that Osama bin Laden is still alive; much of the organization’s leadership has been killed. Al Qaeda now appears to be mostly effective as an inspiration to other jihadist groups. Moreover, Afghanistan is largely irrelevant to Al Qaeda’s operations. National Security Advisor Jim Jones recently claimed that there are only 100 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and that they have “no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.” The underwear bomber, linked to Nigeria and Yemen, illustrates the limit ed relevance of Afghanistan to terrorism these days.
The United States also succeeded in driving the Taliban from power. Whatever happens in the future, Washing ton punished the regime that hosted Al Qaeda. Even if the Taliban returns to power in some provinces or in Kabul, many Taliban leaders appear less than well disposed to an organization that misused their hospitality and caused their ouster. Even a victorious Taliban is likely to be a chastened Taliban, hesitant to host terrorists seeking to strike America.
Finally, the United States has sent a very clear message to any other regime tempted to aid anti‐American terror ists: Do so at your peril. Washington might not have the knowledge, wisdom, or commitment to spread democra cy, impose liberal values, and otherwise transform society, but we still can and will punish any government foolish enough to assist those who attack us.
Having met these objectives, Washington could have withdrawn, demonstrating how (limited) military action can effectively combat terrorism. Such an outcome would have yielded a more secure America, although not neces sarily a more democratic Afghanistan.
The intervening eight years have not been cheap. The conflict has consumed roughly 900 U.S. and 600 allied lives and cost about $220 billion, with nearly another $100 billion budgeted for this year alone, inflated by President Obama’s ongoing escalation. The Afghan people, too, have suffered greatly, with tens of thousands of dead and in jured civilians.
The return on this investment has been poor. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the situation in Afghanistan is “deteriorating.” Taliban attacks on allied forces are up; secure areas are down. The Afghan government exercises little control over most of the country. The most vibrant industry may be drugs, which fund friends, including high government officials, and foes alike. Vote‐rigging by President Hamid Karzai wrecked any pretension that we are promoting democracy.
So what now?
A narrow focus on counterterrorism would be no cakewalk, but it might be achievable at a reasonable cost. This approach would accept that Afghanistan is a tragically fractured land, poor and at war. The embarrassing Karzai government could be accepted with equanimity. After all, if Mr. Ten Percent can be president of the far more important nation of Pakistan, Mr. Dubious Democracy can reign in Kabul.
The United States could look for a political accommo dation, with some mixture of Taliban and local warlords willing to deny Al Qaeda sanctuary. The bulk of American forces could be withdrawn over time. Should terrorists attempt to return to Afghanistan, use of Special Forces and drones in combination with friendly local forces could minimize their effectiveness.
Terrorism will never disappear, but focusing on coun terterrorism might at least thwart future terrorist attacks. Said President Obama when he announced his Afghan policy, CCQ overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda…”
Still, nation‐building seems to beckon U.S. policymak ers. In March 2009, the President agreed to send another 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, explaining, “For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people—especially women and girls.”
A Taliban victory would be bad for the Afghan people, but so far America’s attempt to establish nirvana in Kabul, let alone the rest ofthe country, has fallen far short. Malalai Joya, a woman oft‐threatened by traditionalists for run ning for parliament, has complained, “Your governments have replaced the fundamentalist rule of the Taliban with another fundamentalist regime of warlords.” But should defeating the Taliban be Washington’s business?
While there are many reasons to sympathize with the Afghan people, humanitarian sentiments do not constitute our national interest. David Ignatius of the Washington Post criticized those who would adopt “a more selfish counterterrorism strategy that drops the rebuilding part,” but it is easy to be generous with other people’s lives when you are fighting from your office chair in your ivory tower. The lives and wealth of Americans should not be sacrificed for costly grand crusades irrelevant to American security.
Some believe that Washington needs to finish the job it began in Afghanistan. Masuda Sultan of Women for Afghan Women argued, “We have a moral obligation to continue to follow through for Afghan women who have put themselves at risk over the last eight years.”
Foreign intervention no doubt encourages other peoples to count on the U.S. government, often with costly consequences. However, that does not turn foreign social engineering into a U.S. priority. There is a good argument for welcoming to America those who have risked their lives on her behalf; Iraqi translators come to mind. But this is not the first time, unfortunately, that foreign peoples have shared the unrealistic hopes of U.S. policymakers to transform impoverished, traditional, and war‐ravaged so cieties into free and prosperous countries.
Finally, what of the means about which the President spoke? If fixing Afghanistan is America’s goal, is it possible to achieve? And at what cost?
Here the President’s policy most obviously breaks down. Killing terrorists is easy compared to remaking societies.
Unfortunately, it appears that the administration has taken the worst path possible. Instead of folding or going all in, it is attempting to stay in the game with a slight escalation. General McChrystal wanted at least 40,000 additional troops; President Obama agreed to 30,000. Depending on how many the Europeans actually contribute—undoubtedly fewer than they have promised—the United States and her allies will have around 125,000 personnel in Afghanistan, a country of 33 million peopie scattered among thousands of villages, many located in forbidding mountainous or otherwise desolate terrain. That is not nearly enough.
Traditional counterinsurgency doctrine indicates that about 660,000 troops are needed. The Soviets ultimately deployed 118,000 troops, too few to impose Moscow’s will. The NATO nations initially used 60,000 soldiers to gar rison Bosnia—after all fighting had ceased in that much smaller and less populous land.
Despite all of that, could the Obama administration’s policy somehow work? Most analysts who advocate an increased effort in Afghanistan believe that we must start with an effective regime in Kabul.
Rahm Emanuel spoke of creating “a credible Afghan partner for this process that can provide the security and the type of services that the Afghan people need:” Former Defense Department official Mann Strmecki argued for establishing “an effective and representative government” The Center for American Progress issued a report advocating “a national representative government that is able to govern, defend, and sustain itself.”
One cannot say, given the range of human experience, that such an objective is unachievable. However, the like lihood of success seems slim at best.
Afghanistan has often been called the “grave yard of empires”—a cliché, perhaps, but foreign powers have never successfully ruled the Afghan people. ‘While internal conflict is not inevitable, any central government must, like the mid‐20th‐century Afghan monarchy, understand and respect both the decentralized, traditional nature of Afghan society and the sharp limits on its own power.
Intervention from outside, even by a power with greater understanding of and respect for local cultures than the United States, is inevitably more difficult. Afghanistan is made up of 20 often antagonistic ethnic groups. The dominant Pashtuns are divided into 50 tribes. While many urban people seek modernity; many other Afghans remain hostile to outsiders, especially foreigners carrying guns. Three decades of war have profoundly afflicted Afghan society.
Some advocates of war appear to believe that what is desirable must, by definition, be practical. Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations argued,