That Afghan Tunnel May Be Darker Than We Thought

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Tuesday, you may recall, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen dropped by the Oval Office for a confab with President Obama on progress in Afghanistan, which he detailed for reporters earlier in the day. On Wednesday, the other Afghan shoe dropped as a high-powered band of foreign-policy thinkers began waving red flags warning that our Afghan war policy must be scaled back. It’s not quite an insurrection, but rather the opening shot in a debate that’s only going to grow more intense, and divisive, as Obama’s team concludes its next Afghanistan review by year’s end. “We’ve been creating enemies faster than we’ve been creating friends” in Afghanistan, said report co-author Paul Pillar, formerly with the CIA and now at Georgetown University.

Afghans ferry U.S. Marines across the Helmand River

“The United States should by no means abandon Afghanistan, but it is time to abandon the current strategy that is not working,” concludes the report, A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan. “Trying to pacify Afghanistan by force of arms will not work,” adds the study, put together by the ad hoc Afghanistan Study Group over several months. The U.S., despite is ailing economy, is now pumping nearly $100 billion annually into a war in a country whose annual gross national product is $14 billion. “A costly military campaign there is more likely to jeopardize America’s vital security interests than to protect them.”

While the report’s authors include no headline names — which probably makes it more credible — it may serve to get such national-security heavyweights to ask the kinds of probing questions that have been missing from much of the Afghan war debate. Administration officials embrace the war, in part, in hopes of preventing a 9/11-like attack on their watch. But the report’s authors argue any such strike against the U.S. is unlikely to come from inside Afghanistan, making that justification hollow.

Three dozen foreign-policy, military and intelligence experts helped draft the study, which calls on the Obama Administration to push for five steps it says will cut the U.S. cost by at least $60 billion annually and do more to help the ailing country:

1. Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion. The U.S. should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.

2. Downsize and eventually end military operations in southern Afghanistan, and reduce the U.S. military footprint. The U.S. should draw down its military presence, which radicalizes many Pashtuns and is an important aid to Taliban recruitment.

3. Focus security efforts on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security. Special forces, intelligence assets, and other U.S. capabilities should continue to seek out and target known Al Qaeda cells in the region. They can be ready to go after Al Qaeda should they attempt to relocate elsewhere or build new training facilities. In addition, part of the savings from our drawdown should be reallocated to bolster U.S. domestic security efforts and to track nuclear weapons globally.

4. Encourage economic development. Because destitute states can become incubators for terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and other illicit activities, efforts at reconciliation should be paired with an internationally-led effort to develop Afghanistan’s economy.

5. Engage regional and global stakeholders in a diplomatic effort designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability. Despite their considerable differences, neighboring states such as India, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia share a common interest in preventing Afghanistan from being dominated by any single power or being a permanently failed state that exports instability to others.

“We’re stuck” in Afghanistan, said Matthew Hoh, a former Marine who fought in Iraq and served as a State Department civilian in Afghanistan until he quit last year over what he sees as the war’s futility. Despite the huge increase in U.S. troops under Obama — from 38,000 when he took office to nearly 100,000 today — “it’s not getting better — it’s getting worse.”

One more thing worth noting about this report. Co-author Darcy Burner of the Progressive Caucus Action Fund said the report was written for U.S. citizens and not Washington policy wonks. “It is not a typical D.C. think tank document,” she said of the 12-page report. “It would have to be 18 times as long.” It makes for a quick, but sobering, read.