Commentary

For Afghanistan, No Clear End in Sight

in Program

By Grace Tyson – In
his speech last Wednesday, June 22, President Obama announced his plan to
withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan
by September 2012, leaving 70,000 troops on the ground. Responses to this
decision have varied wildly.

Adm. Mike
Mullen
, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the President’s drawdown plan
is risky, and advocated a less rapid withdrawal in order to secure long-term
gains in Afghanistan.
Nancy Pelosi (D-California), on the other hand, said that the hope was for a
full drawdown of US forces sooner than what the President laid out, and “we
will continue to press for a better outcome.”

Security
experts are divided. According to a poll conducted by National Journal[1], 53
percent believe the President’s plan risks jeopardizing significant gains, 18
percent believe it leaves too many troops in Afghanistan, and 29 percent believe
that President Obama’s plan is sound.

But
in spite of the large percentage of security experts who seem to advocate a
smaller drawdown, American citizens and lawmakers are clamoring for the US to
leave Afghanistan, and quickly. In the past few years, US public opinion about our involvement in Afghanistan has
become increasingly negative, with recent polls indicating that 74 percent of
Americans would like a partial or complete drawdown of troops, compared with 60
percent in 2010[2]. What it
would mean to “win” the war in Afghanistan
has not been clearly defined from the beginning, and the lack of concrete goals
and an exit strategy are also disconcerting. Meanwhile, domestic concerns such
as the national debt have turned both Republicans and Democrats toward a desire
to withdraw from Afghanistan
and focus attentions on domestic affairs.

There
may be no way of “winning” this ten-year war, but what should our focus be at
this point? President Obama has chosen a plan for a fairly moderate US withdrawal from Afghanistan
that will satisfy at least some of the American desire to withdraw, and will
hopefully allow us to secure long-term gains in Afghanistan. Here are some things to
consider:

 

  • US
    Goals:
    The goals outlined by President Obama in 2010 were to defeat Al
    Qaeda and stabilize the country so that it will not be a haven for
    terrorists. The question now, is: How much attention should we continue to
    commit to counter-terrorism? In other words, is it reasonable to expect
    that the US
    can achieve the goals set out by President Obama, or should we cut our
    losses and refocus our attention? At this point, it is not possible for
    the US to eliminate the
    threat of terrorism in Afghanistan.
    There has certainly been progress—progress that has made the lives of many
    Afghanis much safer—but in retrospect, it may not be enough to justify the
    costs of the war. It is unclear that such progress, furthermore, is
    sustainable; there is no clear end in sight.
  • Afghani
    Security Forces:
    With plans to withdraw NATO forces from Afghanistan
    by 2014, there are two options to ensure that the Afghani security forces
    are able to protect civilians: the insurgency must be drastically
    diminished, or the Afghani security forces must improve dramatically. With
    300,000 members, it is unlikely that the Afghan security forces will be
    able to maintain order unless one or both of these occur. The Afghani
    security forces need training, and many Afghanis are concerned about their
    safety from insurgents without US
    protection, while on the other hand, there is an overwhelming feeling of
    exasperation over the length of time US presence has endured. We
    must ensure that the Afghani security forces are well-trained and able to protect.
  • A
    Political Solution
    : It is a major concern that Afghanistan
    cannot maintain a centralized and competent government that will give
    orders to promote civilian security to the security forces. There is also
    a good deal of warranted apprehension—from both Americans and Afghanis—about
    the leadership of Afghanistan’s
    President Karzai, who has increasingly spoken out against the US and
    appears to be leaning toward a negotiation for peace with the Taliban. Of
    Afghanis polled by the Asia Foundation[3]
    in 2010, the most commonly mentioned shortcoming of the national
    government was corruption, at 37 percent.
  • Diplomacy:
    With the US turning
    away from the war in Afghanistan,
    we must refocus our efforts to emphasize diplomacy and infrastructure. How
    much—and what—can be accomplished through nonmilitary, diplomatic
    operations? With budgeting concerns, outcry over the loss of American
    lives, and the upcoming Presidential campaigns, we are witnessing a shift
    of focus. We must continue to aid Afghanistan with diplomacy,
    building the education system, and health infrastructure. In FY2011,
    State/USAID. received $4.1 billion for Afghan operations after a budget
    request cut from $4.6 billion, and the request for FY2012 for Afghanistan
    is $4.3 billion. Without the support of the Afghani people, however, these
    efforts will be in vain.
  • Afghan
    economy:
    US
    withdrawal could affect the Afghan economy very negatively, as it has
    become reliant on the presence of US troops over the past ten years. The
    World Bank estimates that 97 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from
    military-related and donor community spending, and Afghan salaries are
    inflated. If the US
    withdrawal sparks an economic crisis in Afghanistan, progress we have
    made there will certainly be lost. In spite of our current debt, continued
    funding for USAID and the State Department’s foreign aid programs in Afghanistan
    will be essential to the country’s wellbeing.
  • Afghani
    Public Opinion:
    In the Asia Foundation’s poll, 47 percent believed the
    country is “moving in the right direction,” an increase from 42 percent in
    2009 and 38 percent in 2008. Of the 47 percent with this positive
    perception in 2010, 38 percent cited strong security as the reason for
    their optimism. Furthermore, 81 percent of respondents said they agree
    with the democratic principle of equal rights of participation and
    representation.

Without the Afghani
people’s desire, our goals of a stable, democratic society cannot be achieved.
As Gen. James L. Jones said in Stimson’s most recent Chairman’s Forum, “we
can’t want things for people that they don’t want for themselves.” It is
unclear whether the US
commitment in Afghanistan
can achieve long-lasting gains, even without the drawdown of troops, and the
American people have grown tired of this war. There does seem to be a desire
within the Afghani people, however, for security and democratic rights. In
order to avoid the risk of completely losing what we have gained, we should
continue to invest in diplomatic operations in Afghanistan that are backed by a
small—but highly trained—military presence.



[1] http://www.nationaljournal.com/nationalsecurity/national-security-insiders-equally-divided-over-obama-s-new-afghanistan-strategy-20110622

[2] http://www.langerresearch.com/uploads/1119a6%20Afghanistan.pdf

[3] http://asiafoundation.org/resources/pdfs/Afghanistanin2010survey.pdf

 

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