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Tough Choices in Afghanistan

Robert Hathaway

More than fourteen years after routing the Taliban, and seven years after President Barack Obama, pledging to wind up the war, entered the White House, the United States faces another turning point in the seemingly endless conflict in Afghanistan.

Tough Choices in Afghanistan

More than fourteen years after routing the Taliban, and seven years after President Barack Obama, pledging to wind up the war, entered the White House, the United States faces another turning point in the seemingly endless conflict in Afghanistan.

The Washington Postreported last week that current and former officials are quietly pointing to South Korea, where 28,500 U.S. troops remain sixty-three years after the end of the Korean war, as a model for the future American presence in Afghanistan.

The military situation in Afghanistan is tenuous and by some measures deteriorating. The optimism raised nineteen months ago by the election of President Ashraf Ghani is slipping away. It seems clear that Obama’s earlier hopes for ending the war on his watch will not be met. Yet simply standing pat until a new U.S. president takes office next January seems unattractive, irresponsible, and dangerous.

Before making new commitments in Afghanistan that will inevitably bind the hands of his successor, Obama must provide persuasive answers to a handful of questions, including the following:

What can we hope to accomplish with a few thousand troops for a few more years that we and our coalition partners were unable to accomplish with up to 140,000 troops deployed over a far longer period? Is it within our power to build the Afghan army and police into an effective force capable of providing security for most of the populated areas of Afghanistan? Can U.S. training and other assistance counteract the desertions, defections, and low reenlistment rates that make the Afghan army a revolving door?

More broadly, can Afghanistan develop an effective military force absent fundamental reform in Afghan society? Can a culture riddled with corruption and patronage politics, in a country where opium, from which heroin is produced, is the number one cash crop, build a capable army that respects the principle of civilian rule and the rights of the population it is supposed to defend?

The Taliban controls more territory today than at any time since 2001. How are the Taliban, in the face of staggering casualties inflicted by the mightiest army in history, able to persevere, and even to seize new territory? How do they continue to draw new recruits to their cause?

Has the introduction into Afghanistan of forces fighting under the banner of the self-declared Islamic State changed the nature of the war? If so, what should this mean for American strategy? Does the appearance of the Islamic State in Afghanistan make a negotiated political settlement less likely?

Even leaving the Islamic State aside, is such a settlement possible? Are the Taliban prepared to compromise, which after all is the essence of negotiation? And if so, can we have any confidence in their promises? Or are the Taliban so fractured as to make the idea of negotiating with the Taliban meaningless? If a political settlement seems unlikely, what are the alternatives?

It is no accident that Pakistan is invariably described as both part of the problem in Afghanistan and part of the solution. What do we need from Pakistan in order to succeed in Afghanistan? Are we in danger once more of building on pipedreams of Pakistani cooperation?

Pakistan claims that its army has found religion, so to speak, and is at last serious about weeding out extremism. Even if accurate, does this include Afghan-focused extremism, or only that which targets Pakistan itself? Either way, does Pakistan have the leverage to force the Taliban to negotiate in good faith?

What’s the exit strategy? How will we know when we can leave Afghanistan, or at least end an active military presence? What are reasonable benchmarks for success? And what happens if we don’t reach those benchmarks?

Suppose the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate. Can the United States afford to be seen, by friend or foe, as uncaring or incapable if Afghanistan slides into chaos? Won’t failure in Afghanistan materially strengthen the forces of violence and extremism around the world?

Finally, what do we owe those—Americans, Afghans, other foreign friends and allies—who have died since the United States went into Afghanistan in 2001? A great deal, no doubt, but doubling down will not bring them back to life. Is there a point when placing more lives at risk and expending more treasure no longer honors those who have given their lives?

Noticeably missing from these paragraphs, I realize, are any substantive answers to the questions they pose. In part, this reflects my own uncertainties, even after decades of tracking events in Afghanistan. But it also underscores the failure of the administration to provide persuasive answers.

These issues deserve to be subjected to fact-based analysis, an approach seldom evident in this election year. To be sure, measured reason is not sufficient; Kennedy’s best and brightest didn’t know what they didn’t know, and we paid a huge price in Vietnam for their ignorance. But if not sufficient, fact-based, illusion-free analysis should provide the base from which we consider these matters.

Abandonment of our Afghan friends or expansion of U.S. combat operations are not the only options. We will almost certainly want to continue providing weapons and other equipment to Afghan security forces. Perhaps air support, or additional training, intelligence, and logistical assistance. A strong case can be made for continued economic support for the Ghani government. But before he makes these or other commitments, Obama should be able to answer each of the questions asked above.

Some will say that this is setting the bar too high, that it is impossible to foresee all possible contingencies or predict the actions of other actors. The requirements set forth above, they would argue, are an invitation to indecision.

But to advance this argument is to assert that momentous decisions should be made on the basis of guesses, gut feelings, and short-term calculations. Is this, after America’s longest war, all the American people expect from their leaders? Shouldn’t we demand the same analytical rigor that goes into a feasibility study for a new water project, or the location of a new shopping mall?

Making the right choices won’t be easy. Anyone who assures us that there are simple, painless answers in Afghanistan is either a liar or a fool. We have already had one too many slam-dunks.

This article originally appeared on The Council on Foreign Relations.

About the Author

Robert Hathaway

Robert Hathaway

Global Fellow, Director Emeritus;
Former Director, Asia Program, Woodrow Wilson Center; Former Public Policy Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more