How Not to Withdraw from Afghanistan

Lessons from America's other war.


Eleven years of costly war have confirmed that there is no military solution in Afghanistan. As one U.S. commander in Afghanistan retires and another takes his place, it’s time to focus on a political and economic transition to Afghan rule. It’s time to finally bring U.S. troops home.

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced that 34,000 American soldiers, airmen, and Marines will indeed leave Afghanistan this year. But he provided few details about the withdrawal strategy. As he weighs the options for transferring security responsibility to Afghans and decides on what form the U.S. presence will take beyond 2014, he and his advisors would do well to remember the Iraq war as a cautionary tale.

First, the U.S. experience in Iraq showed that focusing too narrowly on a military solution comes at a high cost. The United States prioritized the buildup of the Iraqi Army, often at the expense of funding for crucial civilian programs in areas such as infrastructure support, governance and democracy, agricultural development, rule of law, and anti-corruption initiatives.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, the United States and NATO have focused on creating a large and capable Afghan army. But insufficient attention has been given to nonmilitary initiatives, such as promoting political reconciliation among opposing factions and strengthening the rule of law.

This repeat of recent history is even more worrisome given that U.S. attempts at buildup of the Afghan National Army have met with mixed success at best. The Defense Department found in December that, despite years of training, only one of 23 Afghan brigades can operate independently.

On the other hand, however, Western investments in Afghanistan’s civilian sector have had some notably positive results, particularly in education and health care. In the final phase of the transition, we must build on these successes by giving attention to nonmilitary initiatives, including promoting free and fair elections, fighting corruption, and protecting the rights of women.

Another lesson is that reconstruction efforts should focus more on sustainable investments than on short-term stabilization. In Iraq, American planners prioritized immediate results, while sacrificing development initiatives that would benefit Iraqis in the long run. The U.S. Institute of Peace’s 2005 report on economic reconstruction in Iraq confirmed this, arguing that the U.S.-led coalition should have "immediately begun work on long-term projects to rebuild major infrastructure, restructure state-owned enterprises, create sustainable jobs, and promote private sector growth. But long-term development projects were not an initial coalition priority."

The United States has made similar mistakes in Afghanistan, where much effort has been expended to produce visible, short-term results without the support needed to sustain them. According to Oxfam, which operates in 20 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and has vocally criticized NATO’s short-term outlook in Afghanistan, "Far too much aid has focused on ‘quick fixes’ and band-aid approaches rather than on what will produce positive and lasting results for Afghans over the long term." While short-term gains are important, the last stages of the war should take into account developmental and economic issues, including food and water insecurity, the drug trade, and the Afghan economy’s limited ability to generate revenue.

Making these investments will certainly be difficult, particularly at a time when many other needs at home and abroad command America’s ongoing attention and resources. But withdrawing from Afghanistan without continuing commitment to its critical civilian tasks would be shortsighted at best.

Finally, Iraq highlighted the flaws of a U.S.-centric reconstruction approach that pays too little attention to local needs. American planners in Iraq frequently pushed for sweeping reforms that were poorly coordinated with what Iraqis needed, wanted, and could sustain without American support.

The Nassiriya Water Treatment Plant, for example, was a U.S.-backed project that cost $277 million. In a follow-up visit in 2010, American inspectors found that Iraqis had disconnected the plant because they did not know how to operate or maintain it. An eerily similar example can be found in Afghanistan’s national power utility, which was built without considering whether local operators could manage the equipment. Now, without any trained Afghans to operate the utility, millions of dollars of equipment is sitting idle in storage.

It is said that the United States always "fights the last battle" or that it fails to learn from the mistakes of previous wars when it comes to creating a stable post-conflict environment. With the Afghanistan war at a crucial crossroads, Obama, Congress, and the military have an important chance to foster a stable Afghanistan after 2014. This won’t be easy, but by rebalancing the military and civilian missions, focusing on long-term sustainability, and working to meet genuine Afghan needs, we can learn from our mistakes and avoid fighting our last battle over again.

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