Eight months after President Obama announced his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and to expand the counterinsurgency war there, we have seen enough—enough to know that the strategy cannot work, and enough to understand that the costs of continuing the war far outstrip any conceivable benefits.
This conclusion was more than buttressed by the WikiLeaks release of 92,000 classified military documents, which reveal that the Pentagon has repeatedly overestimated its ability to control events; that the Taliban have much broader support, including the active assistance of the Pakistani intelligence services, than has been portrayed; and that the Afghan army and police, whose training is the centerpiece of our eventual exit strategy, are even more distrusted by the Afghan people than has been reported. Virtually everything in the war logs confirms that this is a conflict we should not be waging.
After nearly nine years of war, it is clear that Afghanistan—with its complex regional and ethnic divisions, its long history of fierce resistance to occupying forces, its decentralized governance and tribal system, and its susceptibility to the interference of neighbors—does not lend itself to successful counterinsurgency.
In addition, a majority of Americans oppose the war, which is increasingly being questioned by politicians and pundits. As other presidents have learned, it’s not possible to wage a war that lacks public support and for which there is no clear measure of success. It is therefore time for the president to change policy; we cannot afford to wait for the policy review scheduled for December. The administration should take the advice of a majority of House Democrats and begin planning the "safe, orderly and expeditious redeployment" of US troops and start work on a regional diplomatic initiative to support reconciliation in Afghanistan.
As laid out by Obama last December, the administration’s strategy has two goals: one, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum in order to make them more pliant to negotiations at a time of Washington’s choosing. The other is to strengthen the capacity of the Afghan government so that it can hold, and eventually assume complete responsibility for, areas cleared by the surge of US and allied forces. These two objectives were to come together in the spring offensive in Marja and in a summer offensive in Kandahar, in the Pashtun heartland.
But, as the Pentagon admits, the offensive in Marja fell far short of the objectives. It revealed that even with overwhelming force, we cannot fully clear and hold territory with our own troops, let alone install a local government that can withstand Taliban intimidation.
Particularly problematic has been the performance of the Afghan government and security forces. Even if the Pentagon had been able to clear the area, transferring control to the Afghan security forces is a distant dream. Because of that, US commanders have indefinitely postponed the Kandahar offensive. The Obama administration may have softened its public criticism of President Karzai, but the Afghan government is a stew of corruption and opportunism, hardly able to deliver the most basic services. Meanwhile, the government seems more determined than ever to pursue its own agenda, which often conflicts with Washington’s. Standing up to the Americans may give Karzai a semblance of popular legitimacy he otherwise lacks, but it undercuts any partnership.