MYTHS AND REALITIES IN THE AFGHAN DEBATE
United States can afford to stay in Afghanistan for as long it takes to win.
Reality: U.S. national security depends most fundamentally on our economic strength. An open-ended commitment in Afghanistan demands vast resources better used at home and for purposes that contribute effectively to our security. It depletes our military and distracts our political leadership from more pressing challenges. And it adds massively to federal deficits and to the national debt, without building anything of enduring value for future generations.
The Obama administration and the U.S. military have a feasible strategy and a clear timetable to end the war.
Reality: The current strategy is not working, and the administration has not identified the end-state it is seeking to achieve or the circumstances that would make withdrawal possible. The U.S. government emphasizes that withdrawal in summer 2011 will depend on conditions prevailing at the time. The current strategy and the stated timetable are out of synch; objectives need to be updated to realities on the ground to ensure that a drawdown in the summer of 2011 proceeds in a timely and effective manner.
The “surge” in Iraq proves that counterinsurgency strategies can work; all we have to do is stay the course.
Reality: The “surge” in Iraq was only a partial success, predicated as much on a program to pay wages to almost 100,000 Sunni that had been fighting against us as it was on an increase in troops. Conditions in Afghanistan are far more challenging. There was a reduction in violence in Iraq, but the “surge” failed to produce meaningful political reconciliation. Escalation in Afghanistan has achieved few results so far, and there is no reason to think this will change.
The effectiveness of the “surge” in Iraq depended heavily on the simultaneous political turn of the Sunnis against the counterinsurgency. Ethnic and sectarian faultlines in Afghanistan are far more complicated and tribal structures are far more fragmented than in Iraq, making a similar political turn among insurgents very remote. Political reconciliation in Afghanistan will have to proceed community by community.
The Taliban is a group of religious fanatics who can never be appeased through negotiations.
Reality: All societies contain some extremists who cannot be appeased, but they usually represent tiny minorities. Many factions within the Taliban have already shown a willingness to negotiate. They may be won over by proposals that will give them a share of political power, greater local autonomy, and the prospect of economic gain. The Taliban is not a unified movement but instead a label that is applied to many armed groups and individuals that are only loosely aligned and do not necessarily have a fondness for the fundamentalist ideology of the most prominent Taliban leaders. Participants also include a long list of tribal chiefs, militia leaders, and warlords, many of whom (including the Haqqani and Hekmatyar organizations) are a living legacy of the insurgency against the Soviets.
There is no meaningful difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They are part of a growing alliance of religious extremists that hate America and must be defeated at all costs.
Reality: Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not the same – and in fact have many differences and disagreements. The Taliban is a coalition of political-military and tribal organizations that seeks power in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is a global terrorist organization seeking to end Western influence in the Middle East and overthrow existing Arab governments. Only Al Qaeda threatens the United States directly.
If we leave Afghanistan, the Taliban will take over, Al Qaeda will re-establish itself there, and new and deadly attacks on America will be more likely.
Reality: The Taliban are unpopular in much of Afghanistan and unlikely to take over the country. They might regain power in some areas, but Al Qaeda cannot recreate its former haven because—unlike before 9/11—the United States can easily detect and destroy bases and training sites with air power or special forces. Further, our large-scale military presence there may actually be increasing the overall danger that we face back home. Anger at U.S. military action in Central Asia inspired Faisal Shahzad, a U.S. citizen, to attempt an unsuccessful car bomb attack in Times Square. Other home-grown terrorists appear to have been inspired by similar motivations.
Our large-scale presence in Afghanistan is the only thing that will ensure women’s rights.
Reality: The worst thing for women is for Afghanistan to remain paralyzed in a civil war in which there evolves no organically rooted support for their social advancement. Women’s rights are central to the progress of Afghanistan, and the international community should continue to support this progress. While our proposal calls for a greatly reduced military presence, we nevertheless propose an international peacekeeping force that will be sufficient for the continuance of a number of key initiatives, including women’s progress.
Withdrawal from Afghanistan will be seen as a great victory for Al Qaeda and enhance its popularity and prestige. If we scale back our engagement in Afghanistan, they will simply follow us home.
Reality: It is our military presence that is actively aiding Taliban recruitment and encouraging disparate extremist groups to back one another. The Afghan mujaheddin did not “follow the Soviets home” after they withdrew. The same will be true once the United States reduces its military footprint and eventually disengages. In fact, military disengagement will undermine Al Qaeda’s claims that the United States is trying to “dominate” the Muslim world. A smaller U.S. footprint in the Muslim world will make Americans safer, not encourage terrorist attacks against American targets at home and abroad.
The U.S. scaling back its military mission in Afghanistan will threaten Pakistan’s stability and jeopardize control of its nuclear arsenal.
Reality: A prolonged and unwinnable war is more likely to undermine stability in Pakistan than would the prompt scaling down of the U.S. military mission. There are many other steps that the United States could take to help secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal that would be far less expensive and more effective than keeping a large military force in Afghanistan.
Fortunately, the danger of a radical takeover of the Pakistani government is small. Islamist extremism in Pakistan is concentrated within the tribal areas in its northwest frontier, and largely confined to its Pashtun minority (which comprises about 15 percent of the population). The Pakistani army is primarily Punjabi (roughly 44 percent of the population) and remains loyal. At present, therefore, this second strategic interest is not seriously threatened.
Reducing the military effort in Afghanistan will cause allies to doubt our credibility and staying power. Some might even be tempted to cut deals with our adversaries.
Reality: Public support for the allied mission in Afghanistan is lagging in almost all partner countries. The United States will strengthen its credibility among allies by coming forward with a realistic and pragmatic strategy for scaling back and eventually ending the mission. With some NATO countries already heading for the exit, a U.S. aimed at eventual departure is more likely to keep the coalition intact than one that aims at unrealizable objectives. The U.S. will gain the most credibility with our allies from making decisions that are recognized as wise, even if they represent a change in direction.
If the Obama administration scales back the mission in Afghanistan, Republicans will portray it as “soft” and the Democratic Party will pay a big political price in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
Reality: Our strategy in Afghanistan should be based on U.S. national interests, not partisan politics. Moreover, the war is increasingly unpopular with the American people. Voters will support a strategy that reduces costs, emphasizes counter-terrorism, and begins to bring U.S. troops home.
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This report was published on August 16 2010.