At nine years and counting, the U.S. war in Afghanistan is the longest in our history, surpassing even the Vietnam War, and it will shortly surpass the Soviet Union’s own extended military campaign there. With the surge, it will cost the U.S. taxpayers nearly $100 billion per year, a sum roughly seven times larger than Afghanistan’s annual gross national product (GNP) of $14 billion and greater than the total annual cost of the new U.S. health insurance program.1 Thousands of American and allied personnel have been killed or gravely wounded.

The U.S. interests at stake in Afghanistan do not warrant this level of sacrifice. President Obama justified expanding our commitment by saying the goal was eradicating Al Qaeda. Yet 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.

America’s armed forces have fought bravely and well, and their dedication is unquestioned. But we should not ask them to make sacrifices unnecessary to our core national interests, particularly when doing so threatens long-term needs and priorities both at home and abroad.

Instead of toppling terrorists, America’s Afghan war has become an ambitious and fruitless effort at “nation-building.” We are mired in a civil war in Afghanistan and are struggling to establish an effective central government in a country that has long been fragmented and decentralized.

No matter how desirable this objective might be in the abstract, it is not essential to U.S. security and it is not a goal for which the U.S. military is well suited. There is no clear definition of what would comprise “success” in this endeavor. Creating a unified Afghan state would require committing many more American lives and hundreds of billions of additional U.S. dollars for many years to come.

As the WikiLeaks war diary comprised of more than 91,000 secret reports on the Afghanistan War makes clear, any sense of American and allied progress in the conflict has been undermined by revelations that many more civilian deaths have occurred than have been officially acknowledged as the result of U.S. and allied strike accidents. The Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence continued to provide logistics and financial support to the Afghan Taliban even as U.S. soldiers were fighting these units. It is clear that Karzai government affiliates and appointees in rural Afghanistan have often proven to be more corrupt and ruthless than the Taliban.

Prospects for success are dim. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently warned, “Afghanistan has never been pacified by foreign forces.”2 The 2010 spring offensive in Marjah was inconclusive, and a supposedly “decisive” summer offensive in Kandahar has been delayed and the expectations downgraded. U.S. and allied casualties reached an all-time high in July, and several NATO allies have announced plans to withdraw their own forces.

The conflict in Afghanistan is commonly perceived as a struggle between the Karzai government and an insurgent Taliban movement, allied with international terrorists, that is seeking to overthrow that government. In fact, the conflict is a civil war about power-sharing with lines of contention that are 1) partly ethnic, chiefly, but not exclusively, between Pashtuns who dominate the south and other ethnicities such as Tajiks and Uzbeks who are more prevalent in the north, 2) partly rural vs. urban, particularly within the Pashtun community, and 3) partly sectarian.

The Afghanistan conflict also includes the influence of surrounding nations with a desire to advance their own interests – including India, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others. And with the U.S. intervention in force, the conflict includes resistance to what is seen as foreign military occupation.

Resolving the conflict in Afghanistan has primarily to do with resolving the distribution of power among these factions and between the central government and the provinces, and with appropriately decentralizing authority.

Negotiated resolution of these conflicts will reduce the influence of extremists more readily than military action will. The Taliban itself 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.

The Study Group believes the war in Afghanistan has reached a critical crossroads. Our current path promises to have limited impact on the civil war while taking more American lives and contributing to skyrocketing taxpayer debt. We conclude that a fundamentally new direction is needed, one that recognizes the United States’ legitimate interests in Central Asia and is fashioned to advance them. Far from admitting “defeat,” the new way forward acknowledges the manifold limitations of a military solution in a region where our interests lie in political stability. Our recommended policy shifts our resources to focus on U.S. foreign policy strengths in concert with the international community to promote reconciliation among the warring parties, advance economic development, and encourage region-wide diplomatic engagement.

We base these conclusions on the following key points raised in the Study Group’s research and discussions:

  • The United States has only two vital interests in the Af/Pak region: 1) preventing Afghanistan from being a “safe haven” from which Al Qaeda or other extremists can organize more effective attacks on the U.S. homeland; and 2) ensuring that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal does not fall into hostile hands.
  • Protecting our interests does not require a U.S. military victory over the Taliban. A Taliban takeover is unlikely even if the United States reduces its military commitment. The Taliban is a rural insurgency rooted primarily in Afghanistan’s Pashtun population, and succeeded due in some part to the disenfranchisement of rural Pashtuns. The Taliban’s seizure of power in the 1990s was due to an unusual set of circumstances that no longer exist and are unlikely to be repeated.
  • There is no significant Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today, and the risk of a new “safe haven”there under more “friendly” Taliban rule is overstated. Should an Al Qaeda cell regroup in Afghanistan, the U.S. would have residual military capability in the region sufficient to track and destroy it.
  • Al Qaeda sympathizers are now present in many locations globally, and defeating the Taliban will have little effect on Al Qaeda’s global reach. The ongoing threat from Al Qaeda is better met via specific counter-terrorism measures, a reduced U.S. military “footprint” in the Islamic world, and diplomatic efforts to improve America’s overall image and undermine international support for militant extremism.
  • Given our present economic circumstances, reducing the staggering costs of the Afghan war is an urgent priority. Maintaining the long-term health of the U.S. economy is just as important to American strength and security as protecting U.S. soil from enemy (including terrorist) attacks.
  • The continuation of an ambitious U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan will likely work against U.S. interests. A large U.S. presence fosters local (especially Pashtun) resentment and aids Taliban recruiting. It also fosters dependence on the part of our Afghan partners and encourages closer cooperation among a disparate array of extremist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan alike.
  • Past efforts to centralize power in Afghanistan have provoked the same sort of local resistance that is convulsing Afghanistan today. There is ample evidence that this effort will join others in a long line of failed incursions.
  • Although the United States should support democratic rule, human rights and economic development, its capacity to mold other societies is inherently limited. The costs of trying should be weighed against our need to counter global terrorist threats directly, reduce America’s $1.4 trillion budget deficit, repair eroding U.S. infrastructure, and other critical national purposes. Our support of these issues will be better achieved as part of a coordinated international group with which expenses and burdens can be shared.

The bottom line is clear: Our vital interests in Afghanistan are limited and military victory is not the key to achieving them.

On the contrary, waging a lengthy counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan 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 amongst 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 more promising path for the U.S. in the Af/Pak region would reverse the recent escalation and move away from a counterinsurgency effort that is neither necessary nor likely to succeed. Instead, the U.S. should:

  1. Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion. The U.S. should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.
  2. Downsize and eventually end military operations in southern Afghanistan, and reduce the U.S. military footprint. The U.S. should draw down its military presence, which radicalizes many Pashtuns and is an important aid to Taliban recruitment.
  3. Focus security efforts on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security. Special forces, intelligence assets, and other U.S. capabilities should continue to seek out and target known Al Qaeda cells in the region. They can be ready to go after Al Qaeda should they attempt to relocate elsewhere or build new training facilities. In addition, part of the savings from our drawdown should be reallocated to bolster U.S. domestic security efforts and to track nuclear weapons globally.
  4. Encourage economic development. Because destitute states can become incubators for terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and other illicit activities, efforts at reconciliation should be paired with an internationally-led effort to develop Afghanistan’s economy.
  5. Engage regional and global stakeholders in a diplomatic effort designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability. Despite their considerable differences, neighboring states such as India, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia share a common interest in preventing Afghanistan from being dominated by any single power or being a permanently failed state that exports instability to others.

We believe this strategy will best serve the interests of women in Afghanistan as well. 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.

The remainder of this report elaborates the logic behind these recommendations. It begins by summarizing U.S. vital interests, including our limited interests in Afghanistan itself and in the region more broadly. It then considers why the current strategy is failing and why the situation is unlikely to improve even under a new commander. The final section outlines “A New Way Forward” and explains how a radically different approach can achieve core U.S. goals at an acceptable cost.

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This report was published on August 16 2010.

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