March 14, 2012
The sound coming from Afghanistan these days—painfully familiar to those who have travelled there over the past three decades—is of fabric ripping. Periodically, Afghanistan unravels. The country remains very weak after decades of continual violence, emigration, upheaval, return, clandestine war waged by neighbors, and overt war waged by international powers. A pair of horrifying events—the accidental burning of Korans and riots in reaction, followed by a rampage by an American sniper who killed sixteen villagers in rural Kandahar—have now called into question the Obama Administration’s exit strategy and the assumptions on which it is based.
Over the weekend, General John R. Allen, the Marine general who leads all NATO forces in Afghanistan, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “The campaign is sound. It is solid.” But saying so does not make it so. At the White House, according to the Times, there is talk of perhaps speeding up the rate of American troop withdrawal, so that another ten thousand or even twenty thousand troops might leave sooner than planned. But even these proposals sound only like speeded-up versions of the same plan that General Allen is now carrying out.
What if the NATO transition plan for Afghanistan is based upon faulty assumptions or has created fissures that are being ignored because they are unnerving or inconvenient? Does NATO or the Obama Administration have the capacity to honestly reassess the plan, identify its mistaken premises, and adjust? Or do politics, fiscal limits, and the sheer exhaustion of Western governments with Afghanistan’s intractable problems mean, in effect, that the choice comes down to the success or failure of a plan set in place several years ago, one that is still on a kind of automatic pilot?
The ebbing of political will and energy about Afghanistan is evident in Western capitals beset by economic troubles. The impulse is to blame the Afghans for taking up the corrupting incentives of massive international spending, and, equally, to blame Pakistan for allowing the Taliban to regroup—as if NATO were not complicit in both failures.
Afghanistan is not, in fact, being consumed, at the moment, by a raging fire; it only feels that way. There are some aspects of the war that are not going terribly. Territory taken by international military forces in the south is being held against the Taliban, although it’s not clear how durable those achievements are. Security for civilians in the big cities, even Kandahar, is generally better than it was a couple of years ago. The point is only that despite the shocks and despair of the past few weeks, it is at least conceivable that there is enough time and space to rethink the assumptions on which the current exit plan is based, with an eye toward making sure that it does not fail spectacularly.
Some of the assumptions of the original Obama plan have turned out to be simply wrong. The most glaring one is that NATO’s surge in 2009 could induce better governance and decisively improved international-aid performance. There are at least two other dubious assumptions. One is that Afghan politics will be cohesive and stable enough in 2014 to bear the pressures of a dramatic reduction of foreign troops. A second is that Afghan security forces will be capable and politically unified enough to take on the burden assigned to them.
NATO has lately been tearing up its earlier plans for Afghan forces that might have cost eight to ten billion dollars a year to maintain; now the goal being discussed is for a force that might cost two or three billion dollars annually, subsidized by outside governments. When your accountants are changing on the fly the scale and shape of institutions that are pillars of your exit strategy, it is not a good sign.
In war planning as in everything else, human beings often get it wrong. It can be tragic to be wrong; it isn’t shameful. What is shameful is to possess the capacity to recognize and fix mistakes but to fail to do so, out of pride, politics, or indifference to the suffering of others—in this case, the potential suffering of Afghans if NATO leaves behind another Somalia. That is the moral and practical dilemma NATO governments face.
Afghanistan has a history of international armies leaving under pressure. Infamously, one exit by a British expeditionary force of about forty thousand soldiers, in 1842, did not go very well. The entire force, but one man, was destroyed on its way to Jalalabad. That long-ago example has perhaps become a cliché of Western thinking about Afghanistan, but it is nonetheless a reminder that the Afghan body politic has long been infused with nationalism and streaks of xenophobia and that Afghans, like lots of other peoples, can alter their collective perceptions of friends and enemies quickly. The timeline here is not likely to be governed by a calendar of international conferences and declarations.
If there is a lesson from the historical examples of armies leaving Afghanistan, it may be that when a foreign army signals weakness or the intent to withdraw, the incentives shaping the actions of Afghan factions under arms can shift rapidly. In any event, that is certainly happening now. In 2009, as the Obama “surge” began, it was apparent to all Afghan actors that the United States and the international community intended to increase their investments in the country— military and otherwise. The Taliban responded to this challenge with asymmetric strategies that have allowed them to fashion a durable stalemate. For non-Taliban factions under arms, the new incentives argued for patience, hedging, and rent seeking while the money was good.
Now the situation has reversed. The West’s ebbing tide may tempt some armed factions to act—to try to control and seize the political and military spaces that NATO has announced it is abandoning. This may tip groups previously neutral to the Taliban side; it may give rise to new violence only peripherally related to the Taliban’s insurgency; and it will certainly create challenges for the 2014 political transition in Afghanistan, which is scheduled to include a presidential election.
What is Plan B? If some or even a majority of the assumptions behind the current exit strategy are flawed, what are the alternatives? I don’t have a confident-sounding five-point plan, I’m afraid; a place to begin would be to withdraw from overweening confidence about the current plan’s analysis. Unfortunately, in the state of exhaustion around the Afghan problem, the choice is typically framed as “stay the course” or “get out faster.” That is not actually the choice. There are many others. (A quick footnote: Thanks to Roland Paris and Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa for sponsoring the lecture from which this Comment is adapted.)
One possible direction, for example, would involve a much more determined accommodation of the declared, broadly based political goals voiced by Afghan leaders, including but not limited to President Karzai. These goals include an end to night raids, greater and faster sovereignty over international military operations, and a review of the arming and supervision of militias. Even the announcement of such a direction might arrest the despair and contention that surrounds the American-Afghan partnership, bogged down for months in increasingly implausible negotiations over a strategic partnership accord.
It might also be possible to turn, much more energetically, to the 2014 election plan, and the related institutions, personalities, and civil-society groups that will be involved, if the election comes off. According to the Afghan constitution, President Karzai must leave office then—or else, Karzai will decline to leave, and provoke a crisis. In 2009, Afghanistan almost miraculously dodged a meltdown after a fraudulent election—because the incentives for holding on as Obama poured money into the country trumped factional interest. That is unlikely to happen a second time.
Focussing directly and creatively on Afghan constitutional politics and the civil society necessary to bolster a successful transition (the parliament is also supposed to be up for election) might be more useful, in terms of promoting unity and cohesion among Afghan groupings, than the provocative talks with Taliban leaders have so far been. Currently, American political strategy is heavily located in these talks. They are valuable, should be continued, and might bear fruit, but they haven’t produced much so far. Their relevance on the road to 2014 and beyond is uncertain.
Of course, many risks would attend any shift in plans—but it is not as if the current course is risk-free. After all the blood and treasure expended, is anyone in NATO or the Obama Administration even scoping out alternatives to the status-quo plan, apart from faster troop withdrawals? Conceivably, such a rethinking exercise might only cause the President to reaffirm the plan he has. But having risked his Presidency on the U.S. military’s promises about what it could achieve in Afghanistan, Obama deserves an opportunity to change course before it is too late, without being instructed that his only choices are Churchillian resolve and ignoble retreat.
When NATO arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, it recognized that its governments had, during the dark nineteen-nineties, ignored the connections between Afghan suffering and international security. An exit of NATO combat forces is now a certainty. Perhaps it is already likely that NATO will leave behind another terrible civil war or a second era of widespread, coercive Taliban rule. The security of Afghans and Americans will remain linked, come what may. There is no reason to march ahead, blinkered and fatalistic, burdened by a plan that may already have failed.