Withdraw Troops from Afghanistan but Stay Engaged

Mary Kaszynski
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

The war in Afghanistan has cost a lot. In terms of dollars, it has cost $570 billion since 2001, including over $120 billion budgeted for 2012. Caring for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan could cost an additional $700 billion. Afghanistan alone has cost the lives of 1,800 US troops, as well as at least 12,000 Afghan civilians.

Having spent so much on the war, naturally the American public would like to ensure that we’ve gotten something out of it. This is a favorite refrain of those who oppose an accelerated drawdown. If we withdraw troops now, they say, we might as well be abandoning all our achievements and goals in Afghanistan.

This argument is deeply flawed, and also dangerous. The flaw is in equating withdrawing troops with ending our engagement with Afghanistan. The danger is in the underlying assumption that the only kind of engagement is military engagement, and the only way to ensure that our troops have not died in vain is by sending more troops.

Developing a successful strategy for Afghanistan means getting past this idea that “engagement” means “maintain a military presence”. As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee noted in its most recent report, “The U.S. role in Afghanistan is changing, but Washington should repeatedly stress that its engagement is not ending…[after the transition to local security forces] the United States will remain vigorously engaged on security, governance, and economic and social development.”

Adapting to this new role and developing a new strategy for Afghanistan will not be easy. It will require a realistic assessment of US interests in the region, as well as capabilities and limitations. It will require building the economy, not just providing aid. It will require some kind of near-term political reconciliation and long-term investment in improving governance. It will require commitment from the international community, and it will require working with regional actors.

The alternative to this approach – continuing to rely on military engagement – is a strategic and economic quagmire. By relying too much on the military arm our foreign policy, we have allowed it to grow too large – larger, and not necessarily more effective. The result is a military footprint that reflects old security interests, but does not address current threats. Lack of strategic discipline has had fiscal consequences as well. US military spending has grown out of control – a staggering 81% since 2001 according to SIPRI. The costs of the two wars alone, at over one trillion, were a main driver of the current deficit.

Bringing the troops home is not retreat, and it is not abandonment. It is simply the first step towards a more effective Afghanistan policy and a smarter, more responsible defense budget.

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