In announcing at the November NATO summit that US combat forces would remain in Afghanistan at least until 2014, President Obama has short-circuited a much-needed debate about his administration’s strategic review. In so doing, the president has missed yet another chance to begin to end a war that has become an increasingly costly liability.
Advance reports of the review indicate that it will conclude that the surge has made progress in expanding security in the south and around Kabul and in training the Afghan army. But it will also make the case that much more needs to be done, as reflected by insurgent gains in the north and east and by the fact that the Afghan army is not yet able to operate independently of US forces.
Therein lies the problem. Given the corrupt and incompetent Afghan government and the ethnic and tribal divisions that afflict the country, there will always be more to do. Indeed, the war has taken on a life of its own, disconnected from any reasonable strategic goal. Over the course of Obama’s short command, the mission has included "disrupting, dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda" as well as building up a more accountable government and reversing Taliban momentum. Now we may be seeing yet more mission creep, as evidence mounts that Gen. David Petraeus has abandoned his much-touted counterinsurgency strategy, aimed at protecting the population, for an aggressive warfighting strategy, aimed at inflicting massive losses on the Taliban (see Michael A. Cohen’s "Tossing the Afghan COIN" in this issue). This escalation comes as polling shows that a majority of Afghans want US troops out of their country as soon as possible.
The question we must ask is not how much progress we’ve made but why, after nine years, we are still in Afghanistan. Given the serious economic problems we face, the only justification for maintaining more than 100,000 troops and spending more than $120 billion a year would be that Afghanistan poses a national security threat that can be met only with such a large force. But this is not a war of necessity. By the government’s own admission, there are at most some 100 Al Qaeda operatives in remote parts of Afghanistan, and the Afghan Taliban are largely a local movement, with little interest in global jihad. What remains of the old Al Qaeda leadership has long since decamped to Pakistan. In the meantime, the terrorist threat has metastasized into a many-celled franchise spread across several continents. Indeed, the greater danger today comes from a dispersed network of alienated people whose only initial connection to Afghanistan or Pakistan is anger at US killing of Muslims in Muslim lands. American safety therefore depends not on eliminating faraway Al Qaeda havens but on common-sense counterterrorist and homeland security measures of the kind that recently thwarted the bomb packages from Yemen.
Meanwhile, the increasingly bloody war in Afghanistan, along with the aggressive use of drone attacks in Pakistan, may have unintended consequences for our delicate relations with Pakistan. As Anatol Lieven argues in "How the Afghan Counterinsurgency Threatens Pakistan," the greatest danger to Pakistan’s stability comes from the prolonged US war, which deepens divisions in Pakistan and further weakens support for its fragile democratic government. And the destabilization of Pakistan has potentially devastating implications for regional security.
The Obama administration has thus made a grievous mistake in escalating the war. The Afghan crisis is at worst a regional problem that requires a regional, diplomatic solution. Matthew Hoh, a former Marine officer and State Department senior representative in Afghanistan who resigned in protest against the war in 2009 (see his interview with Barbara Koeppel), poses the dilemma sharply: "Is there acceptance among Americans that we are engaged in a generations-long conflict against a terrorist group that only has 1,000 or 2,000 followers around the world? And that it requires us to spend hundreds of billions of dollars, and have hundreds of thousands of marines and soldiers deployed worldwide in a perpetual war? It’s absolute madness, but I’m afraid people are buying into it and not challenging it." It is clear from this current strategic review, as from earlier reviews, that the war will not end if left to the administration and the generals. It will end only when the public demands that it end. And that makes public opposition to the war critical.