Our Afghan Strategy

I want to commend Jeff Goodson’s article on our Afghan strategy at RealClearDefense to your attention. Here’s the paragraph that I think deserves the most attention:

Third, we can’t just walk out. The likelihood is far too high that Afghanistan would go the way of Iraq after the last administration naively pulled the plug there. That executive decision will cost us more in blood and treasure over the long haul than if we had stayed put, with far less salutary effect. We need a modest but robust long-term military presence in Afghanistan, and now is the time to secure that presence. The worst outcome would be wishing in retrospect that we had built and maintained that capability when we had the chance, and suffering the consequences for not having done so.

although this passage runs a close second:

There is nothing wrong with our existing strategic objective in Afghanistan. Preventing terrorists from using the country as a safe haven to attack the U.S. homeland is as appropriate an America first strategy today as it was when formulated—maybe more so, since twenty of the 61 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations operate in the Af-Pak theatre. That is the largest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere, and neutralizing their ability to support the global jihad is critical to U.S. national security.

There is no wiring diagram for pursuing the Afghan sub-theatre of the war, but the best way to the stated end is what others have already proposed: an enduring partnership between our two countries, and the use of Afghanistan as an enduring platform for counterterrorism operations. These are military and security imperatives.

A negotiated settlement is a fine target to aim for, but it is not something that we should pursue either naively or as the primary objective. First, so long as the Taliban don’t recognize the legitimacy of the Afghan government there’s not much to talk about. Second, there’s not much incentive for the Taliban to negotiate unless the military momentum shifts decisively against them.

Third, it is unlikely that the Taliban would accept any government that does not operate under the Pashtun version of sharia law. Few Afghans are eager to return to stonings and public amputations, however, and kidnapping of their wives, daughters and little boys for use as sex slaves.

Let me address that passage first. I think he misstates our strategic objectives. For the last 15 years we have been pursuing a counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan. This:

Preventing terrorists from using the country as a safe haven to attack the U.S. homeland is as appropriate an America first strategy today as it was when formulated

makes it sound as though our strategy were one of counter-terrorism.

The question we need to consider is whether we can maintain a successful counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan without a viable Afghan government as a partner. I think the answer is obviously “yes” but it would require a commitment to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. As would Mr. Goodson’s preferred counter-insurgency strategy.

My preferred strategy is for us to maintain what has been characterized as a “small, lethal force” in Afghanistan with the objectives of counter-terrorism and force protection. Basically, they would be there to prevent Al Qaeda, DAESH, or any other radical Islamist group with global ambitions from mounting a mass terrorist attack on us from Afghanistan. I just wish that our leadership had been preparing us for what we’d need to do for the last 15 years rather than articulating beautiful fantasies.

I think I understand the risks of withdrawal although Afghanistan is not Iraq and, contrary to what Mr. Goodson suggests, the risks are very different between the two cases. What are the risks of changing from a counter-insurgency to a counter-terrorism strategy?

3 comments… add one
  • Steve

    We had to leave Iraq since they weren’t going to give us immunity, but we shouldn’t be staying in these places anyway. We don’t function well as occupiers. It will cost a bundle. I seriously doubt it is the best way, and cheapest in dollars and lives, to keep mainland US safe. Are we really going to to keep spending 40-50 billion a year there to stop an occasional terror attack that could probably be stopped with just decent police and Intel work plus the occasional drone strike?


  • We aren’t in Afghanistan to prevent attacks on the mainland U. S. and haven’t been for years. We’re there to minimize the downside risk to the re-election of incumbents in the event of an attack on the U. S. emanating from Afghanistan after we’ve left. I suspect that can be accomplished a lot more cost effectively by changing the mission.

  • steve

    Ahhh. I certainly have to agree about why we are still there. Still think it a bad idea.


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