President Obama released his Afghanistan war review today. It highlights progress on the battlefield against insurgents, the success of Special Forces operations and drone strikes, and achievements in training the Afghan security forces.
I have four thoughts on the matter:
First, scattered throughout the document are passages such as "al-Qa'ida's senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker," "[a]l-Qa'ida's senior leadership has been depleted," and "al-Qa'ida's leadership cadre have diminished." However, can we deter more jihadists than our efforts help to inspire? After all, "fighting them over there so they don't fight us here" did not deter Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad and his incompetently constructed bomb in Times Square. "Fighting them over there so they don't fight us here" did not deter failed British "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid. "Fighting them over there so they don't fight us here" did not deter Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.
Second, although there is a persuasive case to be made that the United States should disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration never clarifies explicitly how it will encourage Pakistan to do more to fight militants that frequently attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The review claims "improved understanding of Pakistan's strategic priorities," but policy considerations seem not to have not taken into account that no amount of pressure or persuasion will affect Pakistan's decision to tackle extremism, particularly when its strategic priorities are tied directly to reinforcing Islamist bonds across its borders as a buffer against Indian encirclement.
The third core reality ignored in the review is the importance of regional actors, namely Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors (this list is not meant to preclude the inclusion of other countries). As long as the United States is at war, regional rivalries and insecurities will play out in Afghanistan at the expense of Afghan civilians and coalition forces.
Lastly, if the United States insists on pursuing the so far fruitless mission to create a viable Afghan government and economy, then U.S. officials should stop saying that the United States is not nation building in Afghanistan (and stop using the oft-repeated euphemism "capacity building.") After all, what is nation building? Perhaps in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton it is providing Afghanistan's pervasively corrupt and predatory government with "economic, social and political development, as well as continued training of Afghan security forces."
Overall, modest and ephemeral tactical gains have given the administration cause for optimism. It also gives the military the chance to buy more time, which means that the president will stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011, but a residual U.S. troop presence will remain in the country long after that official date.
Any policy, including war, makes sense only insofar as the United States and its citizens receive significant benefits in exchange for that policy's political and economic costs. The Afghan War's current cost-benefit disparity would call for a scale-down in mission objectives and correspondingly in troop presence. But for now, the United States would rather fixate on pipe dreams and on asserting America's permanent role in Central Asia.
Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute.