President Barack Obama has wisely ordered an internal review of the administration’s options in Afghanistan before proceeding with the current plan to send 30,000 more troops, which would nearly double the 32,000 fighting there. For the sake of the country, his presidency and the peace and stability of South Asia, Obama should take US-led military escalation off the table. Instead he should focus on devising a regional strategy to stabilize Afghanistan and strengthen Pakistan. Escalating the occupation of Afghanistan would bleed us of the resources we need for economic recovery, further destabilize Pakistan, open a rift with our European allies and negate the positive effects of withdrawing from Iraq on our image in the Muslim world. Escalation would have all these negative consequences without securing a better future for the Afghan people or increasing US security.
There’s no denying that the situation has deteriorated over the past few years; the Taliban now threaten to take over large parts of Afghanistan. But more US forces will not bring stability. We are losing the war not because we have had too few troops but because our presence has turned the Afghan people against us, swelling the ranks of the Taliban.
Any good will the US military once enjoyed has long since been destroyed by airstrikes that have killed civilians. Human Rights Watch reports that at least 321 Afghan civilians died in NATO or US air raids in 2007. According to the UN, many more were killed the following year. Sending more troops will not win back the hearts and minds of their loved ones. The conspicuous corruption of the Karzai government has also taken a toll. The United States is now viewed as propping up an unpopular regime that New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins describes as seeming “to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it,” and “contributing to the collapse of public confidence…and to the resurgence of the Taliban.”
Adding 30,000 troops might be enough to keep the government from falling in the short term, but it will not be nearly enough to wage the kind of counterinsurgency some Obama advisers advocate. For that, some military experts estimate, we may need as many as 600,000. But even a force one-quarter that size would be an immense burden on the US economy, given our debt from the financial crisis. It would almost certainly mean the postponement, if not the end, of Obama’s proposals for universal healthcare and a green economy.
It is doubtful that even a major counterinsurgency could succeed. Indeed, it may only engender more resistance and encourage support for the Taliban in Pakistan to stop what would be seen as the advancement of US and Indian interests. If we learned anything from the British and the Soviets, it is that Afghans fiercely resist outside powers and that some in Pakistan are eager to prevent outsiders from controlling its neighbor, especially if those outsiders have good relations with India. Afghanistan is called “the burial ground of empires” for good reason.
In recent Congressional testimony Defense Secretary Robert Gates seemed to rule out the more ambitious goal of stabilizing Afghanistan, suggesting instead the narrower goal of preventing it from being a launching pad for terrorism. But he acknowledged even that would require more troops. Gates did not explain why he would commit more troops to keep Afghanistan from being a terrorist haven when Al Qaeda already operates freely in parts of Pakistan and when the Taliban and Islamist terror groups have sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Indeed, the effect of military operations in Afghanistan has been to push Islamists across the border into the tribal areas and Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.
The key to defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist protectors lies with the Pakistani government and its ability to control its remote territories. But there’s the rub: major groups within Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are reluctant to act against Pakistan’s extremists for fear it would help the United States and India gain control over Afghanistan. Thus military escalation would likely counter our efforts to get Pakistan’s government to secure its territory against Al Qaeda. Worse, expanding the war may only deepen divisions in Pakistan and further weaken its fragile democratic government. Even if US escalation achieves the limited goal of denying Al Qaeda a presence in Afghanistan, it could lead to the destabilization of Pakistan, with devastating implications for regional and international security. As Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor of history and international relations at Boston University, recently wrote, “To risk the stability of that nuclear-armed state in the vain hope of salvaging Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake.”
By any measure, the disintegration of nuclear Pakistan would pose a much greater threat to our national security than would the continued presence of Al Qaeda in remote border areas. In fact, the value of Afghanistan and Pakistan as Al Qaeda safe havens is greatly exaggerated. Pakistan’s tribal areas are of limited use in training extremists to blend into US society or learn how to fly airplanes or make explosives (most of the planning for the 9/11 attacks took place in Germany and Florida, not Afghanistan). Nor is this remote, isolated area a good location for directing a terror campaign, recruiting members or threatening global commerce. That is why Al Qaeda is a decentralized network whose leaders in Pakistan can offer little more than moral support and encouragement. American safety thus depends not on eliminating these faraway safe havens but on common-sense counterterrorist and security measures–intelligence cooperation, police work, border control and the occasional surgical use of special forces to disrupt imminent terrorist attacks.
Instead of more troops, we need a regional diplomatic strategy aimed at replacing the US-led NATO occupation with a multinational coalition that would bring about a power-sharing arrangement and new governing structure. This would include more moderate elements of the Taliban who reject Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and would help enforce a halt to the violence. Such a plan would have a better chance of isolating Al Qaeda in Pakistan and giving that country’s government the space it needs to take on extremists.
It won’t be easy for an international coalition to stabilize Afghanistan, but it will have a better chance if it has few US fingerprints. Therefore, Obama should make clear that this regional strategy envisions withdrawing troops and reconstituting the mission under UN, not NATO, auspices. We may associate Afghanistan with 9/11, but actually it now poses a regional problem, not a US security threat. It is inextricably tied to the geopolitics of Central and South Asia; its problems must be solved by the region’s powers, albeit with our diplomatic and financial contributions to development and reconstruction. Progress in stabilizing Afghanistan depends on progress on Pakistani-Indian relations. It also depends on constructive involvement by Iran, which has an interest in tamping down the narcotics trade and in preventing a return of the Taliban. China and Russia have interests in Afghanistan, too, and can contribute to its reconstruction.
Including these regional powers in a multinational coalition and providing it with diplomatic support will not be easy. But it is a task more worthy of President Obama’s pledge to make the United States a respected world leader again than sending more young men and women to die in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan, which would make this Obama’s war. The decision he makes in the coming weeks about Afghanistan will tell us a lot about whether his presidency will succeed in restoring America or will fall victim to a futile war in a distant land.