American Strategy in Afghanistan

Ten years into the Afghanistan war and we’re still debating strategy, tactics, and the advisability of continuing the war altogether. Unfortunately, we’re doing so mostly in print and on the airways—which is to say that this debate is not taking place in the streets or in Washington. For most Americans, the war remains obscured from daily life. Even news coverage has been spotty, with reporting focused largely on the latest gruesome incident or the dramatic development. Recently, two such developments dominated the news cycle: a high-level and much anticipated policy review of the war, and the unexpected death of Richard C. Holbrooke, President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.[1] Both highlight issues worthy of further note.

Holbrooke had long been dubious about the war and upon his passing I thought about the loss of another Cassandra in the midst of another war a generation ago: John C. McNaughton, likely the highest ranking dove in Robert McNamara’s Defense Department, who died in a plane crash, along with members of his family, in July 1967.[2] Admittedly, the McNaughton-Holbrooke analogy suffers from various defects, given the respective visibility and influence of these two figures, the timing of their deaths relative to the trajectory of troop deployments, and so on. Indeed, McNaughton was moving out of his post at the Pentagon and into the less consequential role of Navy secretary at the time of his death, minimizing opportunities he might have had to reverse the direction of U.S. policy (actions, it might be noted, he failed to pursue vigorously while serving as one of McNamara’s senior deputies). Holbrooke, on the other hand, may have been on the verge of assuming a more central role. With U.S. forces beginning to realize greater tactical success against the Taliban, the pieces might have been coming into place for him to have pushed for a negotiated settlement more energetically than McNaughton ever did, reprising, to some extent, the role he played in the Balkans some fifteen years ago.

The chance to broker such a settlement—I hesitate to say “peace”—stems from the likelihood that this war is going to be settled at the conference table. The complete destruction of the Taliban, al Qaeda, or several of the other militant organizations working intermittently with either or both them seems a pipe dream, no less so than was the total eradication of Communists from South Vietnam. Victory in that earlier conflict, U.S. officials realized, involved reducing the Communist insurgency to “little more than sporadic incidents.”[3] So, too, will it be in Afghanistan. There may yet be a chance to convince all sides in Afghanistan—and there are many parties to this conflict—that their interests are best served by a mutual accommodation, even if it’s a temporary one.

But getting to the conference table will remain exceedingly problematic because of several matters that remain unaddressed, or at least unresolved, including the adequate training of Afghan security forces, the majority of which are illiterate; popular disaffection from governmental institutions, which large numbers of Afghans regard as corrupt; and the failure to enlist fully the Pakistanis, who have resisted calls to target the Taliban and al Qaeda elements within its own borders. As a result, the tactical gains the administration seems to be realizing—gains which Gen. David Petraeus has characterized as “fragile and reversible”—continue to beg broader questions about the strategy they’re supposed to serve.[4]

That objective, as Obama defined it in Spring 2009, amounted to disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda. More recently, the president redefined his aims as denying a safe haven to al Qaeda, which is now camped out mostly in Pakistan, and preventing the Taliban from reimposing its control over Afghanistan. Whatever the strategic goal, victory in this war—a war of necessity, according to Obama—has been deemed essential, not just to preclude the horrors that Taliban rule would likely visit on the Afghan population but because a Taliban triumph would presumably pave the way for al Qaeda’s re-emergence in Afghanistan.

But would it? What if the interests of the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other militant organizations, are not synonymous. What if real opportunities exist for driving a wedge between these groups? How much effort has the administration exerted in trying to develop such a strategy? While some reports are now pointing to  greater cooperation between insurgent factions in Afghanistan, the need for policymakers to explore the strategic value of a “wedge strategy,” akin, perhaps, to one pursued at times during the Cold War, would seem to be imperative.[5]

But Congress also needs to become more engaged as well. As Katrina vanden Heuvel suggested recently in the Washington Post, perhaps it is time for Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair John F. Kerry to step forward, as Sen. J. William Fulbright did a generation ago, to conduct a searching, public discussion of the costs of both fighting and ending this conflict.[6]  With the price tag of the war now reaching upwards of $100 billion a year, with U.S. officials describing the 2011 withdrawals as “symbolic,” and with the projected 2014 departure date for all U.S. forces being merely “aspirational,” now would be as good a time as any.[7]


[1] Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger, “Obama Cites Afghan Gains as Report Says Exit Is on Track,” New York Times, 16 December 2010; Robert D. McFadden, “Strong American Voice in Diplomacy and Crisis,” New York Times, 13 December 2010.

[2] Dan Froomkin, “After Bucking Holbrooke’s Advice on Afghanistan, Obama Invokes His Name,” Huffington Post, 16 December 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/16/obama-richard-holbrooke-advice_n_797863.html; Blake Hounshell, “Holbrooke the Dove,” Foreign Policy, 14 December 2010, http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/12/14/holbrooke_the_dove.

[3] “The Kennedy Withdrawal,” http://web1.millercenter.org/dci/1963_1002_withdrawal.htm, accessed 27 December 2010.

[4] Thom Shanker, “U.S. Official Expresses Confidence in Pakistan,” New York Times, 17 December 2010.

[5] Thom Shaker, “Insurgents Set Aside Rivalries On Afghan Border,” New York Times, 29 December 2010.

[6] Katrina vanden Heuvel, “The Costs of War,” Washington Post, 21 December 2010.

[7] Ben Arnoldy, “New Afghan War Plans Could Cost U.S. Taxpayers an Extra $125 Billion,” Christian Science Monitor, 19 November 2010.