As world leaders gather in Chicago this weekend for the NATO Summit, one item will dominate the agenda: NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan. Among those in attendance will be President Obama, who will seek commitments of funds and troops from NATO allies to support the precarious transition of military leadership in the country to Afghan national security forces. These negotiations take place in the shadow of one persistent question: Can this war be won? Or is it time to acknowledge that this war cannot be brought to any meaningful conclusion let alone a victorious one? Last month, senior fellows Fouad Ajami and Charlie Hill convened a roundtable of eight thinkers and scholars on this vital question at Hoover’s online symposium on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East, The Caravan. For a better understanding of the backdrop of this NATO Summit, continue reading below or here (to jump to the full symposium on the Afghan war).
The Caravan project of the Working Group on Islamism and the International Order has put together a round table about the vital question of America’s options in Afghanistan.
This is now America’s longest war, yet it has been so sparsely debated of late. Can this war be won? Have there been gains worthy of the sacrifices in blood and treasure incurred by the United States and its allies? Or is it time to acknowledge that this war cannot be brought to any meaningful conclusion let alone a victorious one?
Eight thinkers and scholars have taken part in this. There is H.R. McMaster – brigadier general in the U.S. Army, until recently he served as Commander of Combined Joint Task Force Shafafiyat (Transparency) in Kabul, Afghanistan; Leon Wieseltier -Literary Editor of The New Republic; Ms. Clare Lockhart – co-founder and CEO of the Institute for State Effectiveness, she lived in Afghanistan for several years, contributing to the design of nationwide programs as adviser to the Afghan government; Joel Rayburn – Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and a senior military fellow at the National Defense University; Professor Tom Henriksen, Professor Russell Berman, Professor Charles Hill and Professor Fouad Ajami – senior fellows at The Hoover Institution.
If you are interested in traveling to our previous destinations, be sure to visit the Caravan (or subscribe to the RSS feed) to survey our journey into the ordeal of Syria, now nearly a full year into a terrible struggle between a dictatorial regime and a rebellion determined to overthrow it, where we asked – ‘What Can Be Done?’
The mass murder attacks against our own nation on September 11, 2001 and subsequent attacks on other nations including the U.K., Spain, and India, demonstrate clearly the importance of denying transnational terrorist organizations access to the resources, freedom of movement, safe havens, and ideological space they need to plan, organize, and conduct these attacks. It is for this reason that the stakes in Afghanistan are high as we and our Afghan and international partners fight to deny Al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups the ability to re-establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan. And it is for this reason that we must continue efforts to convince the Pakistani government and military that it is in their interest to eliminate terrorist and insurgent safe havens in their territory.
Essential Elements of Success
Afghan leaders now have an opportunity to consolidate security gains associated with Coalition reinforcements since 2009 and vast improvements in the size and capability of the Afghan Army and police. To do so, the Afghan government and the international community must cope with a range of criminalized adversaries, all of whom have thrived on the weakness of rule of law and are stakeholders in the weakness of critical state institutions. Ultimately, the Afghan government and security forces must be strong enough to control its territory, and contend with the regenerative capacity of the Taliban, and operate effectively against the nexus of insurgent groups, narcotics-trafficking organizations, and transnational criminal networks. Consolidating gains and strengthening the Afghan state requires a concerted effort by Afghan leaders and their international partners to reduce the threat of corruption and organized crime. Corruption is neither unique nor intrinsic to Afghan society. The severity of the corruption problem today is the product, in large measure, of the damage that the last three decades of war–especially the conflicts from 1980-2001–inflicted on Afghan society and the country’s institutions. Inadequate oversight over much of the vast international assistance that entered Afghanistan over the past ten years exacerbated the problem.
The origins of a war do not always illuminate its outcome. The Iraq war began in what I now regard (but did not regard at the time, since I was persuaded that there were nuclear in the hands of a tyrant who had already used chemical weapons) as a scandal of misunderstanding and misjudgment, but Iraq is now the better for having begun its arduous experiment in self-government. The beginnings of the Afghan war, by contrast, seemed unimpeachable to me — the extirpation of Al Qaeda and the collateral blessing of the Taliban’s rout; but I lost faith in the Afghan war a few years ago. The reason was that I lost faith in Afghanistan, in its determination to transform itself into the sort of society that would no longer provide a basis in social and political reality for the Taliban and other theocratic enemies of decency and prosperity. After all, what makes the Taliban frightening is not its military power, but its social and cultural plausibility. Its sources of legitimacy have not been destroyed. The problem is that the task of delegitimating the Taliban is not a military one. To paraphrase Burke, the sword has done all that the sword can do. (Would one more “fighting season” really change the country?). We have decimated Al Qaeda, and our enemies now operate in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. But we have not changed Afghanistan, at least not significantly enough to justify the further expense of American blood and money.
Afghanistan has been at war, in one form or another, for more than thirty years. During this period, US policy has alternated between engagement and withdrawal, varying from support to the Mujahadeen in the 1980s, to support to the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban in late 2001, to a combination of humanitarian assistance and counter-terrorism operations between 2002 and 2005, to a counter-insurgency campaign that was resourced in 2009, interspersed with periods of disengagement. Rather than oscillating between extremes, a policy that seeks to sustain the minimum conditions for regional stability would provide the best chance of achieving enduring security.
To improve policies for civilian engagement whether in this region, or for transitions underway in Africa, the Middle East and other parts of Asia, requires a fresh look at the means of civic engagement. In Afghanistan, focus on the military objectives has not been matched by clear and consistent policies for economic, societal and political engagement with the country’s citizens. Where efforts to create enduring institutions have worked, the key has been to get policy decisions and internal and external partnerships right, often requiring minimal funding. By contrast, the misapplication of development fashions and doling out of huge contracts have often proven at best a distraction or at worst have empowered strong men and marginalized and alienated the population.
Observers rightly say that the Afghanistan campaign will not result in a sustainable outcome without a political strategy to accompany the military operations NATO is conducting. In too many minds, however, formulating a political strategy has been equated to brokering a deal between the Karzai government and the leaders of the Taliban that returns the latter to some share of power. For a variety of reasons, this kind of deal would hold even less popular legitimacy than the current political arrangement does. The Taliban, after all, rarely poll in double-digits among Afghans, who remember their brutal rule too well, and the question of their return prompts near-universal opposition from Afghanistan’s Dari-speaking majority. What political strategists probably should be formulating instead is a political process that affords all Afghans, not just the Taliban, the opportunity to compete fairly for political power, protected by the rule of law. There are a handful of clear political objectives which, taken together, could add up to at least the kernel of such a process.
First, a presidential transfer of power in 2014. A favorite game among Afghanistan watchers is to place odds on whether President Hamid Karzai, whom the constitution requires to vacate his office in 2014, will actually go. Yet go he must, for his staying on in power would signal the emergence of a virtual Popalzai monarchy, with Karzai as permanent head of state. Furthermore, even had he been a perfect president, a dozen years would be quite enough, and Afghanistan badly needs the example of one governing team handing power peacefully to another.
As the 2014 promised departure from Afghanistan draws nearer, popular support for the war is dwindling, and not only in the United States. German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière recently complained, in a moment of stunning candor for a prominent politician, “that much of the rejection of the Afghanistan campaign in parts of the [German] population is due to the fact that people have the feeling that they have not been told the truth.” A painful gap stretches between the violence of the war and the vacuity of political rhetoric.
In 2008 candidate Obama waged his presidential campaign with the claim that the Bush administration had ignored the Afghan front in order to pursue the wrong war in Iraq. Yet President Obama never explained why Afghanistan was the right war to win. At best, he suggested that winning only involved minimalist goals—killing bin Laden or destabilizing al-Qaeda but never defeating the Taliban and certainly not the maximalist goal: establishing a stable, pro-American regime.
The US has succeeded in accomplishing only the narrowest war goal, and the cost of that raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbotobad has been high in terms of the deterioration of relations with Islamabad. As the administration joins in the frantic rush to the exits—leaving behind an emboldened Taliban, a fragmented Afghani political landscape, and Pakistan teetering on the edge of instability—the Bush era benign neglect of Kabul in order to focus on Baghdad increasingly looks like the more rational policy choice. Instead, Obama has chosen to retreat from both Afghanistan and Iraq.
In a twist on the dilemma faced by Shakespeare’s Hamlet—“to be or not to be”—Americans now ask themselves the question in light of several recent setbacks in Afghanistan: to stay or to get out? If the United States stays, can the war be won? If it leaves, what will be the costs?
The ten-year Afghanistan war can be lost but it cannot be won in the conventional sense. The steps leading to an inevitable defeat include a rapid withdrawal of all American and other NATO military forces, abandonment of the Kabul government to its fate, and the passage of a handful of years before all or stretches of the mountainous country falls to the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies. From their newly retaken craggy redoubts, they would again mount terrorist attacks against Western targets and destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear-weapons nation and the next domino.
Victory, in the World War II sense, is nearly impossible to conjure up as a neat and tidy win by the International Security Assistance Force. The insurgency seems endless, and the timetable is on the side of our enemies. They can await the ISAF planned withdrawal of its combat troops at the end of 2014.
When Alexander the Great led soldiers of the world’s sole superpower into Afghanistan he did not fulfill the requirements of today’s counterinsurgency doctrine. He “cleared”, and he “built” – the cities today called Herat, Kandahar, and Bagram – but he didn’t “hold”. He moved on in such haste that he had no time to solidify the governments of the lands he had taken.
We are like Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer in Rembrandt’s great painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We look with a faraway gaze at the strategic void beyond. The lesson’s of Homer’s war epic, The Iliad, are carried into Aristotle’s mind and then down the philosopher’s golden chain to a medallion bearing the image of his former pupil Alexander. Aristotle’s eyes as yet reveal no conclusion, while Homer’s eyes are sightless, and Alexander’s are not visible at all beneath his helmet’s visor. “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.
Significantly, Rembrandt has portrayed Aristotle dressed in the 1648-era clothing of a Stadholder of the Dutch Republic, a victor in the Thirty Years’ War which spelled the beginning of the old age of empires and the start of the modern international state system. The future of this world order now led by the United States may be determined by what happens next in Afghanistan, a war fought to enable Afghanistan to consolidate itself as a legitimate member of the international state system.