Former British FSO Rory Stewart has an excellent op-ed in the NY Times framing the coming challenge in Afghanistan. He starts off by making a critical point: Do we actually have to “win” in Afghanistan? Or why do we need to “beat” the Taliban to win? Why can’t winning be defined as something like “not doing anything dumb” and leaving Afghanistan without making things worse? Would US National Security be damaged if the US simply withdrew from Afghanistan?
AFGHANISTAN does not matter as much as Barack Obama thinks. Terrorism is not the key strategic threat facing the United States. America, Britain and our allies have not created a positive stable environment in the Middle East. We have no clear strategy for dealing with China. The financial crisis is a more immediate threat to United States power and to other states; environmental catastrophe is more dangerous for the world. And even from the perspective of terrorism, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are more lethal.
Yes, Afganistan deserves more attention, but “attention” doesn’t have to be military. I agree with the author that sending more troops would probably lead to disaster and only make things more difficult.
President-elect Obama’s emphasis on Afghanistan and his desire to send more troops and money there is misguided. Overestimating its importance distracts us from higher priorities, creates an unhealthy dynamic with the government of Afghanistan and endangers the one thing it needs — the stability that might come from a patient, limited, long-term relationship with the international community.
More troops have brought military victories but they have not been able to eliminate the Taliban. They have also had a negative political impact in the conservative and nationalistic communities of the Pashtun south and allowed Taliban propaganda to portray us as a foreign military occupation. In Helmand Province, troop numbers have increased to nearly 10,000 today from just 2,000 in 2004. But no inhabitant of Helmand would say things have improved in the last four years. Mr. Obama believes that sending even more troops and money will now bring “victory” in Afghanistan. Some of this may be politically driven: a pretense of future benefits appears better than admitting a loss; and because lives are involved, no one wants to write off sunk costs. Nevertheless, these increases are not just wasteful, they are counterproductive.
The only way that sending more troops to Afghanistan is a good idea is if it is some kind of way to threaten the Taliban into making more concessions. The Taliban may be “winning” but they also can not hold out forever. The key to getting out of Afghanistan with any kind of desirable result is pushing the Taliban to seperate from Al-Qaeda and enter the Afghani political arena. Yes, as many people have mentioned, this would not be easy as the Taliban is not a unified movement. Still, there really is no other possible option.