Against Counterinsurgency

Against Counterinsurgency

The recently released report of the Afghanistan Study Group affirms The Nation‘s long-held belief that American military disengagement in Afghanistan, combined with a new diplomatic effort to ensure regional stability, is the best way forward for the war-torn country.


The Nation has long argued for a military disengagement from Afghanistan, combined with a new diplomatic effort aimed at reconciliation and regional stability. Over time, more and more leading foreign policy experts and opinion leaders have come to embrace this position. The latest and arguably most important example of this growing consensus is the recently released report of the Afghanistan Study Group, an ad hoc gathering of former government officials, well-known academics and policy experts assembled by the New America Foundation.

The report substantiates in cogent detail the main points of our critique of current US policy, beginning with the underlying rationale for the war. As the report notes, President Obama has justified expanding our commitment by saying the goal is to eradicate Al Qaeda. Yet the report points out that "Al Qaeda is no longer a significant presence in Afghanistan, and there are only some 400 hard-core Al Qaeda members remaining in the entire Af/Pak theater, most of them hiding in Pakistan’s northwest provinces." More important, there are Al Qaeda sympathizers in many locations throughout the world, including Britain and the United States, and defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, the report argues, will have little effect on Al Qaeda’s threat to the United States. Accordingly, the report concludes that the threat from Al Qaeda would be better met via specific counterterrorism measures, a reduced US military footprint in the Islamic world and diplomatic efforts to undermine international support for militant extremism.

The report also takes issue with the official Washington view of the war as a conflict between the Karzai government and an insurgent Taliban movement allied with international terrorists. In fact, the conflict is a multifaceted civil war among various Afghan ethnic groups and regions. The Taliban, the report notes, is not a unified movement but an umbrella label applied to many armed groups and individuals, many of whom do not share the fundamentalist ideology of the most prominent Taliban leaders. With US military intervention, the conflict has also come to include resistance to foreign military occupation, thus transforming part of the conflict into a war against the United States.

Given the tenuous links between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and the fact that Al Qaeda operates in a number of countries around the world, the report argues that waging a lengthy counterinsurgency not only makes no sense but does more harm than good. Waging such a war, it says, "may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group, help spread conflict further into Pakistan, unify radical groups that might otherwise be quarreling among themselves, threaten the long-term health of the U.S. economy, and prevent the U.S. government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems."

The key to stability in Afghanistan, the report argues, is not to shore up the Karzai government but to resolve the distribution of power among various factions and between the central government and the provinces. Negotiated resolution of these conflicts will reduce the influence of extremists more readily than will military action, says the report. The Study Group therefore proposes a way forward that emphasizes power-sharing and political inclusion, that downsizes and eventually ends US military operations, and that engages regional and global stakeholders in diplomacy designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability.

We are pleased to note that the basic position this magazine has long proposed has now become the clear alternative to General Petraeus’s long counterinsurgency war.

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