WASHINGTON - Amid continued high levels of violence and a steady stream of
reports of high-level government corruption in Kabul, a growing number of
foreign policy specialists are urging United States President Barack Obama to
reconsider his counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan.
In a new report released on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of three dozen former
senior officials, academics, and policy
analysts argued that the administration's ambitious "nation-building" efforts
in Afghanistan were costing too much in US blood and treasure and that, in any
event, "prospects for success are dim".
Calling for an accelerated timetable for reducing the US military presence, the
"Afghanistan Study Group", which also urged intensified efforts to reach a
negotiated solution with the Pashtun-based Taliban, echoed many of the points
made in the latest strategic survey that was released by the International
Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London on Tuesday.
"As the military surge reaches its peak and begins to wind down, it is
necessary and advisable for outside powers to move to a containment and
deterrence policy to deal with the international terrorist threat from the
Afghan/Pakistan border regions," said IISS's director general John Chipman in
introducing this year's report.
"At present, the COIN strategy is too ambitious, too removed from the core
security goals that need to be met, and too sapping of diplomatic and military
energies needed both in the region and elsewhere," he noted. "For Western
states to be pinned down militarily and psychologically in Afghanistan will not
be in the service of their wider political and security interests."
The two reports come amid growing public skepticism both in the United States
and its European and North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners - two of
which, Canada and the Netherlands, have just withdrawn all of their troops -
about the course of the war, which will soon mark its ninth anniversary.
Currently costing US taxpayers US$100 billion a year, the Afghan war became the
longest in US history this summer when it exceeded the Vietnam conflict.
Despite the appointment in June of General David Petraeus, the author of the US
COIN strategy in Iraq, to head US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, two out
of three respondents in a recent CNN poll said they believed Washington was
"not winning" the war. Half said the war could not be won.
Sixty-eight percent of respondents in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll taken last
month said they were "less confident" that the war would be brought to a
"successful conclusion" - a striking increase from the 58% who took that view
last December. Only 23% said they were "more confident".
The increasingly sour mood is no doubt due in part to the preoccupation with
the economy and growing political support in both parties for cutting the
yawning government deficit, of which the $100 billion spent on Afghanistan is
not an insignificant part.
But the persistent high casualty rates - this year's total US military death
toll, 331, already exceeds 2009's high of 317 - has also contributed to the
growing popular conviction that the war is simply not worth the cost.
Meanwhile, the virtually daily reports of high-level corruption in the
government of President Hamid Karzai - this past week, major stories have
featured the run on the politically well-connected Bank of Kabul - have
persuaded a growing number of people, including members of the foreign policy
elite and even a number of normally hawkish Republicans, that Washington simply
lacks the kind of local partner that any true COIN campaign requires to
Released as congress returns to Washington after the long August recess, the
Afghanistan Study Group's report, entitled "A New Way Forward: Rethinking US
Strategy in Afghanistan", appears designed to provoke debate about US policy
during the mid-term election campaign and in the run-up to a formal review in
December by the Obama administration of how its COIN strategy is faring.
On the advice of Petraeus and the Pentagon, Obama has increased the number of
US troops deployed to Afghanistan from some 35,000 when he took office in
January 2009 to about 100,000 today. He has vowed to begin withdrawing troops
in July 2011, although the pace at which they will be withdrawn has not yet
been determined and remains a source of considerable contention within the
The administration has been split for some time. The so-called COINistas have
argued for a major "nation-building" effort combined with a military campaign
directed against the Taliban that they depict as inseparable from al-Qaeda.
Others within the administration, reportedly led by Vice President Joseph
Biden, have argued for a less ambitious counter-terrorism campaign (CT) aimed
more narrowly against al-Qaeda on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.
In that respect, the Study Group, whose membership spanned the political
spectrum from the Democratic left to the libertarian right but was weighted
most heavily towards "realists" who until George W Bush generally dominated the
post-World War II foreign policy elite, is aligned more closely with the CT
Quoting former US statesman and arch-realist Henry Kissinger, the report noted
that "Afghanistan has never been pacified by foreign forces" and that "waging a
lengthy counter-insurgency 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 quarrelling amongst
themselves, threaten the long-term health of the US economy, and prevent the US
government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems."
"We've been creating enemies faster than friends," noted Paul Pillar, who
served as the US Central Intelligence Agency's national intelligence officer
for the Middle East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, at the report's release
at the New America Foundation (NAF). Complaining of a "disconnect" between the
conduct of the war and the US aim of destroying and disabling al-Qaeda, he
described the US intervention in Afghanistan as "a nine-year-long mission
The report called instead for a five-pronged strategy that would "fast-track a
peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a
power-sharing balance among the principal parties"; intensify diplomatic
efforts with Afghanistan's neighbors and others "to guarantee Afghan neutrality
and foster regional stability"; and lead an international effort to develop the
Obama, it said, should "firmly stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing US
forces in the summer of 2011 - and earlier if possible. US force levels should
decline to the minimum level needed to help train Afghan security forces,
prevent massive human-rights atrocities, resist an expansion of Taliban control
beyond the Pashtun south, and engage in robust counter-terrorism operations as
In particular, US forces should maintain their capabilities "to seek out known
al-Qaeda cells in the region and be ready to go after them should they attempt
to relocate elsewhere or build new training facilities," the report said.
"Al-Qaeda is no longer a significant presence in Afghanistan, and there are
only some 400 hardcore al-Qaeda members remaining in the entire Af/Pak theater,
most of them hiding in Pakistan's northwest provinces."
Besides Pillar, other signers of the report included Gordon Adams, a top White
House budget official for national security under the Bill Clinton
administration who is currently with the Stimson Center; Steve Clemons, the
head of NAF's American Security program; Patrick Cronin, a senior adviser at
the Center for a New American Security; W Patrick Lang, who served as the top
Middle East/South Asia officer in the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency
during the 1990s; Selig Harrison, an Afghan specialist at the Center for
International Policy; and Stephen Walt, a Harvard University scholar considered
a leader of the "realist" school of international relations.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com