P.J. Crowley on Afghanistan Withdrawal: Quick U.S. Withdrawal Not a Sound Strategy

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Since the death of Osama bin Laden, there has been a major political push in Washington for a change in the administration’s Afghanistan policy. A review of the existing strategy is needed, particularly as President Obama considers withdrawing some combat forces beginning next month. But finding bin Laden next door in Pakistan warrants caution, not a hurried exit from Afghanistan.

First, it is important to review why the United States remains in Afghanistan almost 10 years after 9/11, and what the existing strategy is.

The administration’s shorthand for the strategy, set by the president in December 2009 after a lengthy review process, is to defeat, disrupt, and dismantle Al Qaeda while preventing Afghanistan from again being used as a terrorist safe haven. Obama sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan last year to reverse Taliban momentum, while expanding civilian efforts to build stronger Afghan institutions, negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban, and grow a legal economy less reliant on narcotics—the production of which funds much of the extremism in that neighborhood.

The strategy committed the U.S. to begin withdrawing military forces in July while intensifying the training of Afghan national security forces. The Hamid Karzai government has committed to assuming full responsibility for the nation’s security by the end of 2014, when the existing U.S. and international military mission will end.

While Afghanistan has progressed over the past two years (using a very low bar), no one is suggesting that the tasks outlined only 18 months ago are close to completion. Security is tenuous. Corruption is still a concern. The economy is still taking baby steps. While political talks show promise, a meaningful negotiation to end the Afghan insurgency does not yet exist.

Those advocating an exit sooner rather than later say bin Laden is dead, mission accomplished. Either that, or bin Laden was in Pakistan, so Afghanistan is no longer important. The most worrisome argument is that we are broke, and no longer can afford to stay in Afghanistan. Let’s take these in turn.

Afghanistan in 2001 was a terrorist-sponsored state. What made it a safe haven had as much to do with decisions made by Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader, as with bin Laden. We should keep the pressure on until a real negotiation is underway.

If there is a military strategy for Pakistan, it is primarily one in which Pakistan, supported by the U.S., would continue targeted strikes against Al Qaeda and affiliated networks. Success in Pakistan, which has had links to a number of plots against the U.S., will require effective action for years on both sides of the border.

This is why the Obama administration took a regional approach to this challenge. Both countries matter. But Afghanistan has to be strong enough to assert itself in the ongoing Great Game. That’s where the civilian strategy comes in—strengthening Afghanistan’s governmental institutions, economy, and civil society, including the standing of women. As a Senate report this week underscores, this effort needs to be improved, though civilian efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan should continue long after U.S. and international forces withdraw.

With U.S. forces leaving Iraq this year, and Afghanistan no later than 2014, the real debate is what will drive U.S. national security policy globally for the coming decade and beyond. Since 2001, the driver has been combating terrorists—primarily through military intervention—and installing democratic governments in the process. This strategy has run its course and is no longer affordable, either fiscally or politically.

A more realistic (and prudent) national security policy is to aggressively support transitions from weak or autocratic states to pluralistic and democratic societies, whether in South Asia, North Africa, or the Middle East. U.S. leadership and engagement will still be vital, but with less reliance on military means and greater use of civilian tools.