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America’s Afghanistan policy is in chaos. Fear of another Vietnam is palpable, and our friends and adversaries worldwide sense it. NATO allies are lining up to depart the battlefield. Domestic political support is crumbling, all because of the utter incompetence of the war’s management.
The Obama administration has changed military commanders in Afghanistan for the second time, and the top civilian hierarchy may also change. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is said to be negotiating with the enemy. Reportedly, billions of dollars, packed into suitcases or piled on pallets, have been flown out of Afghanistan, seriously challenging the American public’s willingness to support war during a deep recession and posing the question of why all this conveniently portable financial assistance was necessary to begin with.
But these controversies–personnel changes, weak Afghan leadership and corruption–distasteful as they are, are merely manifestations of the administration’s flawed policy. The real problem is confusion about America’s basic aims and how to achieve them.
To date, Washington’s Afghanistan debate has pitted counter-terrorism against counterinsurgency: that is, limited or no military presence and reliance instead on long-range strike capabilities against specific targets, versus a significant but modulated military effort tied to economic and institutional development.
In fact, neither alternative is correct.
U.S. objectives in Afghanistan are straightforward: first, defeat Taliban and Al Qaeda efforts to reconquer Afghanistan and make it a base for international terrorism , and second, ensure that Afghan turmoil does not weaken or endanger Pakistan, permitting its nuclear weapons arsenal to fall into the hands of radical Islamists. Today, the second objective is actually more urgent. But neither one has much to do with economic or political progress in Afghanistan. Correspondingly, Americans will accept casualties of war to pursue U.S. interests, but they will not support gauzy efforts to make Afghanistan nicer for its inhabitants.
Our current policy chaos over Afghanistan is compelling evidence that counter-terrorism’s objectives are too limited to keep Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in safe hands, and its resources too inadequate to destroy the Taliban. On the other hand, counterinsurgency, at least under Obama, commits the United States to a good-works, community-development program that will almost inevitably fail, invariably lose popular support (as is now happening), and which is unnecessary to achieve either critical goal. Achieving U.S. strategic objectives cannot be based on Afghan performance, but only on our own.
Take the Marja campaign. While militarily successful, it has not created the desired stability, which the administration blames on Kabul’s failure to deliver effective “government in a box” for the locals. But “government in a box,” which assumes successful institutions can develop independently from the people they must serve, is inane, a product of social engineers. In fact, social engineering works no better in Afghanistan that in inner-city America. The Afghan government’s failure in this is neither surprising nor troubling, but clearly demonstrates why Obama-style counterinsurgency is a hopeless endeavor. And we are not getting a new president any time soon.
Even if Kabul could improve overall Afghan political or economic life, it wouldn’t defeat the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Religious fanatics, and their grievances, do not arise from poverty or deprivation. Accordingly, their fanaticism is not susceptible to remedies based on economic determinism, whether of the crude Marxist variety or its community-organizer cousin. Their motives and hatreds will not disappear with prosperity or free elections. In any event, no one alive now may live long enough to see either one happen.
Instead, we require a sustained military presence in Afghanistan devoted to the grim, relentless crushing of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, coupled with substantially enhanced Pakistani military pressure there. This means protracted military action, not social services, which Team Obama is thoroughly unwilling to endorse. It turns out, entirely predictably, that Afghanistan was not “the good war” after all.
Critically, the president must immediately and unambiguously reverse his pledge to begin withdrawal next year. That commitment eviscerated the increase in forces it accompanied, and even today inspires disagreement between the vice president and the Defense secretary over its meaning. And our fellow citizens need to understand and agree to a “long war.”
Obama does not seem to grasp these issues, let alone be prepared to make the right choices. And yet, time is short. If success can be salvaged from failure in Afghanistan, the course correction must come now.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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