As outlined in a new Cato study, Escaping the "Graveyard of Empires": A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan, the United States should narrow its objectives in the region and decrease troop levels as soon as possible.
The United States has drifted into an amorphous nation building mission with unlimited scope and unlimited duration. Our objective must be narrowed to disrupting al Qaeda. To accomplish that goal, America does not need to transform Afghanistan into a stable, modern, democratic society with a strong central government in Kabul, nor does it require the U.S. military to pacify and forcibly democratize the entire country. Today, we can target al Qaeda where they do emerge via airstrikes and covert raids.
The group poses a manageable security problem, not an existential threat to America. Yet, as I mention here, policymakers tend to conflate al Qaeda with indigenous Pashtun-dominated militias. America's security, however, will not be at risk even if an oppressive regime takes over a contiguous fraction of Afghan territory; if the Taliban were to provide sanctuary to al Qaeda once again, it would be easier to strike at the group within Afghanistan than in neighboring, nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Beltway orthodoxy tells us that America's security depends on rebuilding failed states, but that logic ignores the fact that terrorists can move to governed spaces. Rather than setting up in weak, ungoverned states, enemies can flourish in strong states because these countries have formally recognized governments with the sovereignty to reject foreign interference in their domestic affairs. This is one reason why terrorists find sanctuary across the border in Pakistan. [Note: 9/11 was planned in many other countries, Germany and the United States included].
Committing still more U.S. personnel to Afghanistan undermines the already weak authority of Afghan leaders, interferes with our ability to deal with other security challenges, and pulls us deeper into a bloody and protracted guerilla war with no end in sight.
This post originally appeared on The Hill's Congress Blog, September 23, 2009