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Afghanistan Strategy

A Battle of Least Bad Options

New America Media, News Analysis, Daniel J Gerstle Posted: Sep 21, 2009

When you lose a counter-insurgency, youre not being out-thought. Youre being out-governed, Dr. John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, remarked at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Afghanistan on Wednesday.

Allegations of voter fraud made against President Hamid Karzai and other participants in the recent presidential election in Afghanistan have fueled the debate in Washington over whether persisting weaknesses in the Afghan government require a change in American civil and military strategy. Proponents of the current strategy believe that cleaning up Kabul could turn the tide against insurgents, but a solid commitment is required to get to that position of success.

Over eight years, some 827 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Afghans have lost their lives. American tax-payers have spent $200 billion on Operation Enduring Freedom. Policymakers and the public are frustrated that corruption, narcotics trafficking, insurgency, and terror threats continue to loom in Southwest Asia. For the first time this month, the U.S. Congress is requesting more funding for Afghanistan than for Iraq.

At the heart of the discussion in the Senate this week was whether the Obama administration should indeed sustain its broad focus on counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, state-building and aid; expand that effort to achieve more faster; or withdraw troops and narrow the focus to pure counter-terrorism and humanitarian aid.

Sustaining or expanding the U.S. military presence risks jeopardizing not only American and Afghan lives and dollars but also of breeding more militancy among Afghans who oppose the foreign presence. At the same time, withdrawal could leave the ruling government vulnerable to partial or total defeat at the hands of the Taliban, who would likely take the country back to a political position that bans women from work and education, and permits the free movement of Al Qaeda.

Within each choice is another variable, whether peacemaking relies on the ruling Afghan administration aspiring to win the peace by winning the war with NATO support, an attempt to woo moderate insurgents away from extremists, or a traditional Afghan peace conference brokered to forge an agreement through tribal methods.

The challenge of shaping American strategy for Afghanistan has become a puzzle that defies political party lines and leaves both America-first and global-rights advocates twisted in knots. Obama and his administration currently share the position of Republican senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham in considering additional troops, while most Democrats, like Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin, oppose any increase in commitment.

Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold and others question the wisdom of any large U.S. presence. Many agree that the responsibility for security should rest with Afghans themselves but disagree about how many Americans are required to be on the ground and how long is necessary to prepare Afghan forces to take over.

Each option offers a painful trade-off between competing American interests, the rival interests of the Afghan people, financial and political costs, and saving lives today versus security in the long-term. As Americans consider trade-offs in Washington, Afghans look to the future with an overlapping but different set of worries.

Each ethnic and social group faces a potentially different fate once Washington makes a decision. While Pashtuns and Baluchis are largely divided between allegiance to Kabul or the Taliban, most Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hezara and other minorities are extremely worried that a U.S. withdrawal will lead to a Taliban revival and a loss of their share of power.

Since all options would likely be costly in lives and risks, the Obama administration faces a search for the least bad option. Obama has made it clear that the public should not expect a new announcement on strategy anytime soon.

Nagl, speaking to the committee chaired by Senator john Kerry, cited his grueling time leading U.S. troops in Anbar, Iraq, to underscore the real challenge of preparing a local military to take over responsibility during a counter-insurgency.

He clarified the position largely shared by the administration, leading Republicans and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullin. Victory, with the current strategy, envisions an Afghan state that can defend itself with minimal outside help, doesnt pose a threat to its neighbors and does not harbor terrorists intent on striking the United States.

Kerry, as well as Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, asked Nagl provocative questions, including whether the U.S. should pursue counter-terrorism rather than counter-insurgency and whether the example set by U.S. Special Forces eliminating a terror suspect in Somalia without a troop presence was a lesson for Afghanistan.

Nagl countered that even if numbers of Taliban insurgents are only fighting the U.S. presence, as opposed to the Karzai government, the focus on Al Qaeda still risked leaving Kabul vulnerable to an insurgent win, which would in turn revive the harbor for Al Qaeda.

When Kerry asked how many troops he would estimate would be needed, Nagl said from 500,000 to 600,000 but that most of these troops should be Afghan. A lasting U.S. troop presence is a prerequisite to building a sustainable Afghan Army, according to Nagl, which could take as long as five years.

Opposing views were plentiful. Dr. Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, made the case that if the United States reduces its presence, failure is not pre-determined.

For Biddle and policymakers like Levin who called for no new troop increases this week, the Afghan government is becoming perhaps too dependent on the United States for security. A reduction in U.S. forces may encourage the Afghans to take the reins, according to this view.

U.S. strategy, rather than focusing on an escalation of conflict in this costly context, would focus on counter-terrorism and state-building. Sen. Russ Feingold suggested that, as in Iraq, an increased U.S. presence may breed militancy as well as force militants into Pakistan.

Rory Stewart, director of Harvards Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, argued for a third option. For Stewart and opponents of a large war, the United States has over-committed, basing strategy on highest goals rather than pragmatism.

Stewart argued that the United States would achieve the most success through a patient, long-term strategy of civil society, aid, and if necessary, counter-terrorism. Trying to win such a war given the constraints would simply raise the numbers killed on both sides without necessarily guaranteeing a self-sustaining democratic Afghanistan.

Ought doesnt mean can, argued Stewart, We do not have a moral obligation to do what we cannot do.

Although many policymakers, strategists and rights groups alike want an end to the endless casualties and suffering, there persists a fundamental debate over whether increased or sustained U.S. involvement will perpetuate or win the war, and whether a withdrawal would leave the country vulnerable to a Taliban revival, which will take both Afghanistan and the United States back to where they began before September 11, 2001.

Daniel J. Gerstle is a writer and humanitarian aid consultant who carried out intensive research on issues of security and hunger prevention for Columbia University and aid agencies in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2009. www.DanielJGerstle.com

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