A New Approach to Afghanistan

09/21/2010 02:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our War in Afghanistan continues, and it is now the longest war in U.S. history. It is not going at all well for us, nor for our NATO allies, and certainly not for the Afghans who have suffered from huge losses and the destruction of their economy and society. Indeed, it is a political and military disaster for all parties.

For some time I have been considering various options in dealing with the Afghan War, including:

  • Bribing the warlords using CIA operatives as we did right after 9/11, but this would be a bottomless pit.
  • Encouraging dialog between the Karzai government and the Taliban, but this has dubious value in view of the brutality and atrocities of the Taliban.
  • Using additional drone attacks on the insurgents, but these cause civilian casualties to the general population that outrage the Afghans, much as such attacks in the U.S. would outrage our population. In fact, many Afghans see these attacks as their own 9/11.

Overall, I think that we are repeating the same mistakes the Soviets made during their invasion and occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, when they left in defeat having accomplished none of their goals and as the British did in the First and Second Afghan Wars of the 19th century, in which they were also totally defeated.

In my view, I believe that our best option at this point is to accelerate our planned withdrawal of our troops in Afghanistan now set for next year. Rather, we should do what President Obama has done in Iraq, removing all U.S. combat troops, leaving only support and training personnel and thereby ending this war that has lasted far too long and should come to a stop soon, which would be in the interest of all parties. The resources of funding, supplies, manpower, organization, etc. that we have committed to this war or were planning to devote to it should be redirected to development assistance in Afghanistan and also to flood relief in Pakistan. Some could also be directed to government-supported employment and education for our returning servicemen from Iraq and Afghanistan who are unable to obtain work on their own in view of the continuing recession.

We should also recognize the human cost of fighting a counterinsurgency campaign not just for U.S. soldiers but also for Afghan civilians as well as the opportunity costs of this war. I estimate that the real, long-term cost of our current war in Afghanistan will completely overshadow current spending, amounting to some 1.5 to 2.0 trillion dollars when taking account of caring for the troops returning from Afghanistan with serious physical and mental injuries, as in the Joseph Stiglitz-Linda Bilmes study of the cost of the Iraq War. This cost is totally unacceptable In terms of the potential benefits that are few and the competing needs in this time of a continuing deep recession. The alleged benefits of preventing another 9/11 that was indeed originally planned and executed in Afghanistan are not real in view of the fact that the al Qaeda leadership is now in the tribal areas of Pakistan, with few of its members remaining in Afghanistan.