A mostly centrist, Nixonian-realist task force calling itself the Afghanistan Study Group issued a deeply flawed but potentially useful report this week called "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan." The task force, organized by Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation and directed by Matthew Hoh, an ex-Marine and former State Department official who resigned to protest the mishandling of the war, included some four dozen denizens of think tanks, academics and former US government officials.
The Afghanistan Study Group hardly proposes an end to the war, suggesting a years-long drawdown of US forces from the current level of about 100,000 to 68,000 in October, 2011, and 30,000 by July, 2012, with the possibility that tens of thousands of American forces might remain in Afghanistan for years after that if they "contribute to our broader strategic objectives." Despite its flaws, however—and it is a consensus document—the report might help push open the door a crack to allow the start of a national debate over a bungled and inept, unwinnable conflict.
If ever the emperor had no clothes, the brutal and destructive war in Afghanistan is it. Within weeks of 9/11, President Bush bungled his way into an unnecessary war, riding a wave of vicious anger and desire for revenge among a traumatized US population. In going into Afghanistan in October, 2001, Bush had the support of not only the blindly enraged body politic but virtually the entire class of pundits, armchair strategists, editorial boards, thinktanks and self-proclaimed strategists—nearly all of whom, safe to say, were blissfully and almost totally ignorant of the country that they were loudly proposing to invade. Like a mad bull, America ignored a handful of naysayers who suggested that perhaps it might be best, first, to work with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda confreres, even if it took a few months or more. Along with bloodthirsty right-wing Republicans and the neoconservative faction, the war was lustily supported by Republican realists, moderates and virtually the entire establishment of the Democratic Party, too. At the time, I was the Washington editor of The American Prospect, and I resigned in protest, at the end of September, 2001, when that liberal magazine happily joined the bandwagon for war.
Nine years later, the United States still doesn’t understand the country it’s occupying. And, in Washington, few if any among the political and military establishment are willing to admit that like Iraq, Afghanistan was a war of choice, and that America made the wrong choice. Somehow, however, a consensus developed that Iraq was the "bad war," and, as President Obama, John Kerry, and others insisted, Afghanistan was the "good war." Now, Democrats seem locked into the belief—undeterred by the catastrophic failure of the US invasion of Afghanistan—that it is still the right thing to do, on the theory that if sending 30,000 troops to the wrong place isn’t getting results, sending 30,000 more to that same wrong place might help, and then when that doesn’t work, why, send another 30,000! And Republicans, who seem to believe that if we don’t fight Muslims over there, why, they’ll build dastardly mosques right here, are Obama’s best allies.
Enter the Afghanistan Study Group.
In choosing that name, the Afghanistan Study Group clearly wanted to mimic the 2006 Iraq Study Group. (Its report was titled, "The Way Forward: A New Approach.") At the height of the Iraq disaster, the ISG issued a scathing indictment of the war and, in its core conclusion, proposed an immediate drawdown of US forces, leading the removal of all American combat troops by early 2008, i.e., within a year. That, too, was a consensus document, but it’s worth pointing out that the members of the ISG included two former secretaries of state, a former secretary of defense, a former attorney general, a former justice of the Supreme Court and other senior officials, with strong bipartisan support among members on Congress, who funded the ISG. The ASG, on the other hand, involved no former senior officials and it had no official or semi-official support, starkly illustrating the fact that in Washington there is little or no appetite, thus far, to challenge the "good war," even nine years later. (Even so, it ought to be pointed out that the ISG, despite its recommendations, was virtually ignored by President Bush, who ordered the vaunted "surge," thus prolonging the war in Iraq another three years, at least. Only last month did US combat brigades finally depart Iraq, while leaving behind 50,000 heavily armed troops.)
It should be pointed out that, because of the establishment consensus in support of the war, the ASG is stepping into a minefield. Most of Washington’s think tanks, even liberal ones such as the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress, are far to the right of where the ASG is. Even within the New American Foundation itself, Clemons has not found universal support, since some of NAF’s leading lights, such as Steve Coll and Peter Bergen, are far more hawkish on Afghanistan than the consensus embodied by the ASG.
To its credit, the Afghanistan Study Group challenges head on many of the shibboleths that are repeated by supporters of the war. The ASG says that America’s interest in Afghanistan does not justify the cost, that the threat from Al Qaeda is minimal and can be contained, that the Taliban isn’t likely to seize control of Afghanistan even if the US effort winds down, and that the conflict in Afghanistan is an ethnic, sectarian and rural-versus-urban civil war. Specifically, it says:
The decision to escalate the U.S. effort in Afghanistan rests on the mistaken belief that victory there will have a major impact on Al Qaeda’s ability to attack the United States.…
A U.S. drawdown would not make Al Qaeda substantially more lethal.…
The current U.S. military effort is helping fuel the very insurgency we are attempting to defeat.
The ASG also points out that there’s little reason to believe that counterinsurgency will prove successful. "Our military strategy is failing because the prerequisites for success do not exist. We have no way of forcing the Taliban to sit still and fight us out in the open, where they would be easy to defeat, because they can melt away into the countryside or withdraw across the Pakistani border.… Adding more troops will not solve this problem."
And, importantly, the ASG makes the point that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not identical. "Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not the same, and in fact have many differences and disagreements," the ASG report says. It adds that if then United States leaves Afghanistan, it’s unlikely that the Taliban will return to power, and that even if it does take control in certain areas of the country the Taliban isn’t likely to bring Al Qaeda back. To quote the ASG at length:
A Taliban victory is unlikely even if the United States reduces its military commitment. The Taliban is a rural insurgency rooted primarily in Afghanistan’s Pashtun population, and its seizure of power in the 1990s was due to unusual circumstances that no longer exist and are unlikely to be repeated. Non-Pashtun Afghans now have ample experience with Taliban rule, and they are bound to resist any Taliban efforts to regain control in Kabul. Moreover, the US military presence has helped the Taliban rally its forces, meaning that the group may well fragment and suffer a loss of momentum in the face of a US drawdown. Surveys suggest that popular support for the Taliban among Afghans is in the single digits.
Even with significantly reduced troop levels, we can build a credible defense against a Taliban takeover through support for local security forces, strategic use of airpower, and deployment in key cities without committing ourselves to a costly and counterproductive COIN (counterinsurgency) campaign in the south. And if power-sharing and political inclusion is negotiated, the relevance of the Taliban as an alternative to Kabul is likely to decline.
And even if the Taliban were to regain power in some of Afghanistan, it would likely not invite Al Qaeda to re-establish a significant presence there. The Taliban may be reluctant to risk renewed U.S. attacks by welcoming Al Qaeda onto Afghan soil. Bin Laden and his associates may well prefer to remain in Pakistan, which is both safer and a better base from which to operate than isolated and land-locked Afghanistan.
Most importantly, no matter what happens in Afghanistan in the future, Al Qaeda will not be able to build large training camps of the sort it employed prior to the 9/11 attacks. Simply put, the U.S. would remain vigilant and could use air power to eliminate any Al Qaeda facility that the group might attempt to establish. Bin Laden and his associates will likely have to remain in hiding for the rest of their lives, which means Al Qaeda will have to rely on clandestine cells instead of large encampments. Covert cells can be located virtually anywhere, which is why the outcome in Afghanistan is not critical to addressing the threat from Al Qaeda.
What the ASG woefully ignores, understates, or dismisses, however, is the fact that the Taliban is not merely a rural insurgency but a lethally organized force supported by Pakistan and its intelligence service, the ISI. The war in Afghanistan is, indeed, a civil war, but one in which one side is vigorously supported by Pakistan and the other side, largely represented by the former Northern Alliance and powerful segments of the Afghan government and parliament, is backed by India, Iran and Russia. The ASG notes, in passing, the Pakistan ISI involvement, but it doesn’t give it the prominence it deserves, especially since it is Pakistan that has the ability to bring most, if not all, of the Taliban to the bargaining table.
Which brings up another flaw in ASG report. It has very little to say about the importance of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Perhaps, among the members of the ASG task force, there was too much disagreement on this point. But Afghanistan watchers know that there is a huge battle between advocates of "reintegration"—that is, bringing low- and mid-level Taliban fighters into an accord with Kabul—and "reconciliation," that is, a top-level deal with senior Taliban commanders, the leadership in Quetta and their Pakistani sponsors. Over the past year, President Karzai has been pushed and pulled between these two objectives. The United States, while dithering, has mostly been resolutely opposed to reconciliation, while Karzai has openly supported the idea. The ASG has little to say about this important issue. It largely avoids it, and when it addresses it, the ASG says that political outreach "should be open to those among the fragmented Taliban who are willing to engage in genuine reconciliation, a step that can help marginalize those Taliban who remain defiant." That sounds suspiciously like the current U.S. attitude, which imagines a distinction between "good Taliban" and "bad Taliban." To strike a deal with the Taliban, it will be necessary to give Pakistan a prominent seat at the table, which is something that the ASG avoids discussing in detail.
As it leaves Afghanistan, the United States would do well to try to facilitate a deal between India and Pakistan, in which Pakistan represents the Taliban—just as the United States left Vietnam after reaching a deal with North Vietnam, which represented the Viet Cong. In that negotiation, Hanoi allowed the United States to maintain the fiction that North Vietnam and the VC were separate entities, and the United States pretended to believe that it was leaving behind two countries, North and South Vietnam. Yet everyone around the table knew that when the United States left Vietnam, it was all over, and the country would unite under Hanoi’s rule. The United States lost that war. And it’s losing this one.
Which is why the ASG’s support for a prolonged American presence is so distressing. Here’s what it says:
The Study Group recommends that President Obama firmly stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in the summer of 2011—and earlier if possible. U.S. force levels should decline to the minimum level needed to help train Afghan security forces, prevent massive human rights atrocities, resist an expansion of Taliban control beyond the Pashtun south, and engage in robust counter-terrorism operations as needed. We recommend a decrease to 68,000 troops by October 2011, and 30,000 by July 2012. These residual force levels should be reviewed as to whether they are contributing to our broader strategic objectives in the fall of 2012—and if not, withdrawn in full over time.
Nowhere does the ASG justify the idea of maintaining 30,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2012 or longer. If the war in Afghanistan is not a vital American interest, if the sacrifice of so much blood and treasure isn’t worth it, then why support an extended US occupation? Steve Clemons, in defending the ASG’s approach, suggests candidly that given the current political conditions in the United States, this is the farthest that a serious task force can go and still be taken seriously. Perhaps. But at a small dinner of several dozen people at a Washington, DC, restaurant on Thursday night, a journalist asked the authors of the ASG report if they’ve rethought any of the conclusions they drew. Steve Walt of Harvard University, a principal author of the ASG report, said that he’d registered the comments on some left-leaning critics who said that the task force was wrongly seeking a "graceful" exit from Afghanistan, when in fact the best the United States could do was just to pack up and go home.