Recent administration comments seeming to water down an earlier commitment to a July 2011 withdrawal date from Afghanistan underline the need for fuzzy strategy. The core problem is the lack of a convincing narrative on why Afghanistan is important and what we are trying to do there. It is clear that whatever we are trying to do cannot be done in one year and the cost in blood and treasure is unacceptable without a solid justification. The original July 2011 announcement was an attempt to square the circle, to raise expectations of an exit without actually describing one. Even though July 2011 was always qualified as being only the start of a process, the illusion of conclusion was fostered.
July 2011 had a nice ring to an American public weary of the war. Unfortunately, it also had a nice ring to the Taliban and Pakistani extremists who, based on prior experience, never expected the United States to stay for the long term anyhow. For them it was the verification of a fickle America, reinforcing a picture of the Taliban as the ultimate winner and discouraging everyday Afghans from supporting US or allied efforts. It energized radical recruitment and motivates the Taliban to hang on tenaciously. It also reinforced Pakistani expectations of an eventual US departure from the region and strengthened its perceived need to maintain relations with Taliban elements. The effect of July 2011 was thus to postpone domestic US opposition to the war but to undermine operations in Afghanistan and regionally.
A year has passed. Continuing casualties in the south and a spreading insurgency in the north indicate little progress. Yet, a requirement to stay on course, avoid collapse, and honor commitments to Afghans, allies and American ideals eliminates the potential for any significant withdrawal by the July 2011 date. And so the rhetoric has shifted from an emphasis on withdrawal to a recognition of a long-term struggle. Even if two soldiers withdraw by July 2011, the words of the original statement will be honored, but not the spirit. The continuing costs and budget pressures are bringing the basic questions back in an even more pressing mode.
Why is Afghanistan important? What are we trying to do??
There is no simple answer to these questions, and the ambiguity comes just when the American public is being fed a steady diet of slogans and mindless denunciations. Reasoned discourse has disappeared from public view at the very moment that Afghanistan policy requires balancing a range of very complex issues.
Why we are in Afghanistan can only be answered in terms of overall US strategic objectives. An increasingly complex world with an assertive China, an ascending India, an intransigent Russia, restless Muslim countries, a global economic depression and uncertain effects of global warming makes US leadership crucial. With its own economy faltering, the United States has to bolster its credibility to retain an ability to influence global policies. Respecting commitments in Afghanistan is a major element of this credibility. A positive outcome in Afghanistan is particularly important for the US standing in the Muslim world, and hence for reducing extremism globally, decreasing the terror threat to the West in general and the United States in particular. So Afghanistan is important, but how important? How should the nation balance this effort against other strategic challenges that are only being weakly addressed if at all.
What would a positive outcome in Afghanistan be? The original core mission of “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al Qaeda was achieved long ago. Al Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan is now minimal compared to its standing in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. In contrast to Iraq, there is little talk of “victory,” though defeat of the Taliban still gets an occasional reference. Instead the objective has morphed into a much more general quest for “success” with a broad nation-building effort and support for a strong central government, something alien to Afghan history. “Success” involves a variety of idealistic words: peace, stability, democracy, open markets, prosperity, development, good governance, respect for human rights.
The United States seeks all of these, but none of them are absolute; each can be rated on a scale of, say 1 to 100. Some would be achievable only over a period of many years. Even the best of outcomes would give a range of scattered ratings. For an acceptable outcome, these ratings would be even lower; many different acceptable outcomes could be outlined. In a country fragmented between several major and a number of minor ethnic and cultural groups, ratings are also fragmented geographically. Indeed, the Taliban are also fragmented, encompassing various groups with varying programs; individual motivations range from the fanatic dedication of suicide bombers to the prosaic need for an accidental guerrilla to find a job. Ultimately the Taliban and the United States share a central objective – the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. But they have very different concepts of what this Afghanistan should be.
The bottom line is that the US strategic goal in Afghanistan, what it is fighting for, is definable only in very gross terms involving a number of interrelated objectives. US actions can make the overall situation better or worse, though it is not always possible to even assess the situation as some ratings go up and some go down. Strategy without a clear goal seems like baseball without bases, it is problematical how to move forward. But strategy is not a game and must be played even when the total situation is intrinsically unclear. For Afghanistan, the starting point must be a narrative describing the gross objective – say, a stable and prosperous Afghanistan. It must address what elements this would include, how important they are, how they affect one another, what actions could help and what actions would hurt and what to do about ambiguous actions that have both positive and negative impacts. Most of all, it must address how to evaluate efforts on a continuing basis and make adjustments as the situation evolves.
This is fuzzy strategy at its best. And in fact, this is generally what has been happening. The US Department of Defense acknowledges that the current reassessment is using a set of eight basic indicators, but it is unclear what these indicators are. Based on prior experience, it is likely that they give an inordinate focus to the military aspects of the situation and show a reluctance to acknowledge the intrinsic ambiguities involved. It is time to accept that there is no clear definition and there will not be any black and white answers. he situation needs to be described in terms an average citizen can understand. Only a credible rationale can convince the American public that a long-term commitment to Afghanistan represents the best of American values and deserves to be supported. This cannot be done with slogans and needs to address the total situation.
The general impression of little progress is an illusion based on the preoccupation with military efforts in the south where, indeed, progress is questionable. Indicators there are mixed at best, results are ambiguous, costs are high. Whether US troops leave in July 2011 or July 2014, they will leave in the not too distant future; there simply is not time to radically change the widespread fundamentalist culture in this area. The bombs, blasts, bullets, bodies and other assorted mayhem that dominate the news hide the reality of significant progress in other areas. The economy increased by an impressive 9% last year, exports were up 30%, telephone networks now knit the country together as road and transportation networks also continue to develop. A new rail connection to Central Asia is almost complete while education at all levels expands impressively and business activities sprout everywhere in the country. While Afghanistan has traditionally been a graveyard for invaders, US forces are not seeking to control the nation but to help it develop, a goal widely shared by Afghans. These are the trends that can ultimately vanquish the Taliban in a wave of modernization rather than an interminable battle; the path to stability is through development. This is true for the entire region which suffers from stunted development, widespread unrest, and no sense of a vibrant future. A developing Afghanistan can help to energize a much wider area.
There needs to be a vision of what Afghanistan can become, a vision to inspire Afghans, especially a new generation, to build their country and to inspire Americans to continue supporting this effort. This vision has to show a nation striving to move into the XXI Century rather than being a hopeless black hole of medieval backwardness America has a long history of nation building, including Germany and Japan. The model for Afghanistan is not Viet Nam, but South Korea where an American military presence now stretches into 60 years with little opposition. It has helped protect the transition from a backward, war torn nation into a vibrant democracy. Indeed, since its inception, the United States has supported the development of other nations. John F. Kennedy's stirring words about assuring “the survival and success of liberty” still resonate, though his commitment to “pay any price” overstated the nation's ability to support liberty, but not its intent. Americans are not averse to long-term commitments in support of others, as witnessed by South Korea. But the commitments cannot be an open-ended drain on resources and have to be balanced against other objectives and show real progress. Reporting and public awareness must broaden beyond military efforts to a daily sense of the totality of activities, including the civil progress that the military is supporting.
The United States also needs a global vision, a vision of what the world can be and how the United States can best promote this. Afghanistan has to fit into that vision. And the scarcity of resources means that all programs have to maximize gains and minimize costs. This is true in spades in Afghanistan which has taken a hugely disproportionate share of US strategic resources, undermining the very ability of the United States itself to prosper. How to balance competing Afghan objectives with other strategic objectives, where to focus efforts, and how large these efforts should be cannot be answered with easy phrases, but it is clear that a more balanced approach is necessary. Reducing the strategic cost of Afghanistan necessitates reducing military operations in the south. President Karzai himself has called for military reductions and upcoming NATO discussions will also address ending combat operations.
Combat reductions can be balanced with significant increases in the development operations in the quieter areas of the country, reinforcing positive developments in areas where foreign assistance is welcomed and minimizing operations in heavily contested areas.
The problem is not just with Afghanistan, but everywhere. We are in an era of strategic ambiguity. It is not only unclear what approaches are indeed the best, but even what goals the nation is pursuing. The clear goals which had traditionally been the guiding light of strategy have degraded into a blur of nebulous and interrelated objectives. The best that can be done is to outline a range of objectives, develop approaches to improve the situation, and continually adjust as we go forward. The American public is insisting on answers, but unfortunately answers are not possible. But what is possible is rational discourse that examines key challenges and develops rational approaches to them.
For Afghanistan there is a double requirement. First to present a convincing rationale for what the United States is seeking to accomplish. Second to provide continuing overall assessments of both military and civil efforts, what they are accomplishing and how they can be continually improved.