Asking the Right Questions on Afghanistan

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama announced that 34,000 of the 66,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan will be withdrawn by this time next year. The announcement clarifies the pace of the drawdown, but it doesn’t represent a change in policy. The U.S. commitment to Afghanistan will continue even after combat troops are withdrawn by the end of 2014.

We need a better strategy for winding down the war and continued engagement in Afghanistan, because if the current strategy continues, we could end up spending billions of dollars ineffectively.

Ongoing military operations have been the main driver of the war budget over the past eleven years. These costs will decline as troops leave, but the costs of supporting an enduring military presence will continue.

Of course, troops are just one component of the U.S commitment to Afghanistan. Training and equipping local security forces has been a cornerstone of the U.S. plan in Afghanistan. To date, the U.S. has allocated over $50 billion in security aid to Afghanistan. But the capability of the Afghan security forces is questionable. According to a Pentagon assessment, only one of the Afghan National Army’s twenty-three brigades is capable of operating independently.

A look into economic and development aid is just as troubling. The U.S. has spent tens of billions of dollars on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan that were later found to be unnecessary and unsustainable. The lack of a long-term, comprehensive plan for Afghanistan funding led to an unusual circumstance, Steve Clemons and Richard Vague noted in a recent interview: some years the U.S. spent more than one hundred billion dollars in a country with a GDP of fourteen billion.

Pouring billions of aid dollars into Afghanistan created more problems than it solved — an artificial aid bubble that will burst when international donors pull out.

The direct costs of the war, from military operations to economic aid, are just the tip of the iceberg.  The indirect costs — from caring for the veterans of Afghanistan (estimated at $1 trillion) to payment on the national debt — will continue long after the war is declared over.

If the economic consequences were not enough to condemn the current strategy, consider the human cost: over 2,000 U.S. troops lost their lives in and around Afghanistan since October 2001; over 18,000 were wounded in action.

The high costs of the war in both blood and treasure should prompt a reevaluation of U.S. policy towards Afghanistan. This does not mean abandoning Afghanistan, nor does it mean surrendering. It simply means recognizing that the current strategy is not working, and that continuing an ineffective strategy puts U.S. security at risk.

It’s time to go back to the drawing board on our Afghanistan strategy, starting with the simple question of what we hope to achieve. Is the goal to disband and disrupt al Qaeda? Or is it to build a stable, secure nation? The answer may be both; the goals may be related. But articulating our goals is crucial. Uprooting a terrorist organization and nation-building are distinct objectives that require different tactics and different resources.

The Afghanistan debate often focuses on the number of U.S. troops that will remain after the 2014 deadline. This is an important , but we should be asking more fundamental questions about our Afghanistan strategy.

After eleven years and $600 billion, we can’t afford to continue along the current path. Asking pointed questions about our Afghanistan policy will not be easy — but it will lead to a more effective and cost-effective — strategy.

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