03.26.11

End the War in Afghanistan Now?

The Taliban is weakened, the American public wants out, and even some Republicans are starting to argue that the war is a lost cause—making some believe that this is the moment the conflict could be ended with grace.

Last week was Japan, this week it's Libya, but Afghanistan is forever. That's how veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering describes the way the news cycles elbow aside one crisis to make room for another while the war in Afghanistan grinds to a stalemate.

That's why Pickering lent his name and prestige to an effort sponsored by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, to assess the prospects for negotiations in Afghanistan that could bring an end to a decade of war.

Modeled after the Iraq Study Group of the Bush era, Pickering and task force co-chair Lakhdar Brahimi, a former U.N. special representative for Afghanistan, advocate a diplomatic surge that would augment the military surge already in place. The goal is to begin talks that would bring in the Taliban and find the exit plan that has so far eluded the Obama administration. At a dinner Tuesday in Washington, they previewed their findings, declaring that war weariness in Washington and in Kabul make this the ideal moment to engage the Taliban.

After hearing the pitch, retired general Douglas Lute, the White House deputy national security adviser, said, "Everyone in the administration should take this glossy little book home and carefully consider it." The 104-page booklet, titled "Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace," lists 35 broad recommendations, the meatiest of which urges the creation of an "internationally recognized facilitator" under the auspices of the U.N.

It could be a person, a group, a country or group of countries, an international organization, or some combination of the above. They're not fussy; they don't care who takes charge as long as someone does. This 15-member task force—whose seven American members include former diplomats and Defense Department officials from Republican and Democratic administrations—want to jumpstart negotiations while a weakened but still emboldened Taliban might be ready to talk. And their efforts come as U.S. politicians are having trouble justifying what most people consider a losing cause.

An eclectic coalition of deficit hawks, neo-isolationists, anti-war liberals and just plain realists is beginning to emerge across the ideological spectrum.

The latest ABC poll shows that 72 percent of Americans have had enough. With the war's aims unclear, and the prospect for success uncertain, an eclectic coalition of deficit hawks, neo-isolationists, anti-war liberals and just plain realists is beginning to emerge across the ideological spectrum. A price tag of over $100 billion a year is difficult to sustain, along with the staggering health-care costs for the wounded after a decade of continuous war.

California congressman Dana Rohrabacher is quick to say he's not a pacifist, but he was one of eight Republicans who voted earlier this month for an antiwar measure introduced by Democrat Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. "Republicans' gut response that whenever the military is involved anywhere they've got to support it or they're not patriotic," says Rohrabacher. "They've got to get over that." The House measure garnered only 65 votes, just the tip of the iceberg of discontent in Congress, and far short of the 218 needed for passage.

Rohrabacher concedes that his views don't represent the majority of Republicans or Democrats: "I'm out there on my own quite often." But his analysis of Afghanistan resonates across party lines even if it doesn't yet attract votes. If the GOP is going to balance the budget, he says, "howling" about federal funding of National Public Radio won't be enough, however satisfying such cuts in domestic programs might be to the party's base.

Take the Obama surge, he says; 30,000 soldiers cost $30 billion extra a year for a mission that can't succeed, and that weakens the United States in the region. "For $3 billion a year we could bribe every local chief and tribal leader in that country, and we could leave with our heads held high. That's what we did in Iraq."

A strategy of bribery is not outlandish. The surge succeeded in Iraq principally because it was coupled with paying 100,000 Sunnis $300 a month not to shoot Americans, says Dan Caldwell, professor of political science at Pepperdine University and author of the new book Vortex of Conflict, about the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. "And it worked pretty well by removing 100,000 forces from the battlefield," he says.

The surge hasn't worked as well in Afghanistan because it's a tribal society and there is no one ethnic group like the Sunnis to bribe.

Politically, this adds up to an opening on the right for a war skeptic, if not an outright antiwar candidate. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, the savviest pol among the likely presidential contenders, is first out of the gate in at least looking for that sweet spot. On a barnstorming tour across Iowa last week he questioned the wisdom of the Afghanistan War and said he would consider cutting the defense budget, arguing that it's not America's responsibility to turn Libya into Luxembourg.

The Afghans have a high sense of optimism, according to James Dobbins, who served in both the Clinton and second Bush administrations and helped set up the Afghan government after the Taliban were overthrown. He points out that President Hamid Karzai has a 62 percent job approval rating, and an 80 percent personal approval, numbers that Obama surely covets. Afghanistan's GDP is up by 300 percent, and half the people have a phone compared to very few before the war. Eight million children are in school; in 2001, it was just one million.

Should the U.S. simply declare victory? Against that backdrop of relative success in a country that is the fourth poorest in the world, the Taliban have an 11 percent approval rating. "There is very little likelihood Afghans will settle for a solution that sells out the values we support," says Dobbins. At the same time, polls show that Afghans by strong majorities want to see members of the Taliban, whom they consider their brothers, integrated into the government.

The 2012 campaign will increase pressure on Obama, from the left and the right, to accelerate his planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. And if these seasoned hands are right, Obama should welcome the push for the exits.

Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek.