Afghanistan: No End in Sight

With no end in sight in Afghanistan, Leslie H. Gelb lays out the risks ahead—and the president's options.

Patrick Baz / Getty Images

The United States will be trapped in Afghanistan for many costly years to come. It is a good bet that President Obama will have most of the 105,000 U.S. troops expected there by the end of summer, still in that sorry country by the next presidential election, and probably even five years from now. By that time, whoever is president will face such public demands for withdrawal that the fiasco will end, finally—for Americans at least. It’s not at all clear whether President Obama fathoms this nightmare or is cynically sidestepping the issue through November 2012.

Sure, I want to be wrong, and I want our efforts to succeed. The Taliban and al Qaeda Muslim terrorists there are monsters, crazed and dangerous. But we face two problems that can’t be swept aside or minimized: The bad guys are far better motivated, and fight far better than the Afghans that Washington is trying to help. Our guys in Kabul—President Hamid Karzai and friends—are deeply corrupt, ineffective, and of at least two minds in both needing and hating America. However good U.S. and NATO troops become at fighting this insurgency, they won’t and can’t be good enough to overcome these two Mount Everests. This conclusion is painfully evident, but we are blocked from seeing it sharply for several reasons.

There is no significant part of the insurgency there that can be brought over to the American side by opening our arms.

First is the success of the military surge in Iraq. Remember, President George W. Bush dispatched an additional 30,000 or so U.S. troops to that war at the urging of General David Petraeus, now America’s commander for South Asia and the Gulf region.

Bruce Riedel: The Afghan Gold Rush Most defense experts blithely argue that this troop increase produced the subsequent period of quiet and stability. It certainly helped, but if you push these surge advocates, they will all admit that the key factor in turning the security tide in Iraq was much less the surge and far more America’s long-delayed alliance with the Sunnis. We treated the Sunnis in the center of Iraq as enemies, when they had the potential all along to be our principal allies. They were caught between the majority Shiites, whom they had long oppressed and who were now in power, and the Kurds, who were seeking relative autonomy often at Sunni expense. So, instead of the Sunnis being the main enemy, Washington finally permitted them to become allies—and the fighting in the center of the country subsided.

There’s no comparable opportunity in Afghanistan. There is no significant part of the insurgency there that can be brought over to the American side by opening our arms. Thus, America’s military surge in Afghanistan cannot plant roots and will inevitably falter.

A second factor blinding Americans to the Afghan quagmire is the great and good U.S. military—a people and an institution that I admire enormously. Constitutionally, they are incapable of admitting they can’t do something. Given marching orders, they will go all out to get the job done, whether or not it is within their capabilities. This trait ennobles the U.S. military, but also makes it highly vulnerable to taking on undoable tasks.

Further, the military is forever being told to run off to this country or that and “win”—only to hear the sirens of doubt and reconsideration two or three years later. Thus, it has been for them in Afghanistan, where Obama initially wanted “defeat” over the Taliban and al Qaeda, and now has reduced that goal to “deny[ing] al Qaeda a safe haven, deny[ing] the Taliban the ability to overthrow the government.” You can easily understand why the military resents this April Fool’s game. They are asked to sacrifice and die, only to be told a few years later that the fight was not really essential to America’s security. Who wants to tell the troops who’ve watched their buddies be killed and maimed, “You did great, guys and gals. But we’re getting out now, even though the job is not done because we’ve decided that it was sort of a mistake and it’s really a problem for the Afghans to figure out”? Who wants to send that message to the military (and their vast army of supporters in America)? Living with the quagmire is easier.

A third reason the public can’t see the full dimensions of the quagmire is that most still believe that exiting Afghanistan without victory would mean a terrorist return to Afghan soil, and new terrorists attacks against the United States like 9/11 or worse. The public still sees Afghanistan as the heartland of terrorism. And this belief is almost certainly no longer true. There’s a far larger terrorist threat coming from northwest Pakistan, headquarters for the bad guys. And don’t forget, never forget, that Pakistani military intelligence and parts of the military itself support the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistanis are telling us to keep fighting in Afghanistan while at the same time providing arms, money, and safe haven to our enemies. Give me a break! Terrorists also have safe homes now in places like Somalia and Yemen—and yes, in the United States of America. The terrorist threat used to be centered in Afghanistan on 9/11; it is now widely dispersed. Americans haven’t adjusted to this new reality, and thus continue to believe that the Afghan quagmire is, well, kind of necessary.

Obama’s Afghan policy review set for December won’t be another fundamental review of policy. He can’t afford another one of those endless talk fests. What top officials will say to each other, then, is already quite clear: Karzai is firing the few officials Americans deem honest and capable. His government barely functions. His army makes very slow progress. His police operation is virtually hopeless. Even as U.S./NATO forces make some headway here and there, little comes in behind them to solidify gains. American casualties climb. Direct costs of the war will likely soon exceed $100 billion yearly. Nonetheless, Obama will reaffirm his commitment to begin U.S. troop withdrawals in July 2011. He can’t back down from that. But he won’t decide in December how many he’ll take out in July. In any event, it won’t be many troops. As for future reductions, they will become much more explicitly “conditions-based,” as all of his advisers urged from the outset.

And what does “conditions-based” mean as a practical matter? It means using the deteriorating, or at least not clearly improving, situation on the ground as an excuse NOT to make big troop cuts. It will mean accepting and using General Petraeus’ favorite argument, that is, things are improving slowly and this is no time to disrupt that positive, long-term process. To be sure, no one will tell the president that trends in Afghanistan have improved enough to justify significant reductions. Thus, the troop-reduction process will grind very slowly indeed. Thus, the quagmire.

If Obama has any mind to avoid the senseless sacrifices ahead, he must do a great deal of planning right now. He needs:

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A clear path to reduce from 105,000 over two to three years or less to a long-term residual force of 10,000-15,000—large enough to perform logistical, intelligence, and training functions for the Afghan forces, and handle military emergencies.

A reasonable economic and military aid program for five years.

An alliance of Afghan neighbors such as India, China, and Uzbekistan to contain the spread of the Taliban—a goal they share.

A deterrence policy against developing Taliban and al Qaeda threats with the means for quick and brutal punishment.

A public policy to explain that the United States made vast sacrifices for 10 years in lives and treasure; did its job of giving the Afghans a good chance of defending themselves against the rather small group of Taliban; that the main combat responsibility now belongs to our Afghan friends, and that the United States has to move its attention to the new worldwide terrorist threat and new threats at home.

December is the time to begin putting this in place—unless Obama’s real plan is to sneak the issue through the next presidential election, and just live with the quagmire.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.